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Laser pointer leads to four-year prison term

Defense says circumstances didn’t warrant punishment
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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A Rocklin man is expected to spend the next four years in prison for pointing a laser beam at a helicopter. Jamie Allen Downie, 35, was sentenced Friday after he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of discharging a laser at an aircraft at night July 18. The judgment was issued about six months after Downie was taken into custody for violating a federal law for a crime that could have potentially devastating consequences. However, his defense attorney, public defender James Shin, said he doesn’t believe the facts of the case warrant the punishment. “Factually it wasn’t a situation where he was tracking this aircraft,” Shin said Tuesday. “Based on that, in my opinion, it’s a misdemeanor.” The Placer County District Attorney’s Office disagreed. Placer Sheriff’s Sgt. Van Bogardus, who was manning the helicopter the night Downie’s laser hit it, spoke in court Friday and relayed the dangers of impairing a pilot’s vision. “You don’t have time to blink,” Bogardus reportedly said in a statement to the court. “And when these lasers strike your eye, you’re responsible not only for yourself and your air crew, but you’re also responsible for the community that you’re flying the aircraft over.” The night Downie was caught pointing the laser was not the first time the Rocklin father of two had reportedly aimed a beam toward the sky. Two weeks earlier, Bogardus was flying over Downie’s neighborhood when he saw the laser. The pilot announced over his public address system that shining a laser was a federal offense and police could knock at their door. On July 18, the beam flashed again and this time the pilot landed and coordinated with other deputies to find the source. When they found Downie’s home and talked to him, he admitted to pointing the beam that night. He also admitted to hearing the warning two weeks before. “He confessed right there on the spot, ‘I was being stupid. I’m very sorry,’” Shin said. Downie was cited for a misdemeanor and the pilot asked him to write an apology letter, which they picked up the next night, Shin said. Shin said FBI agents interviewed Downie soon after the incident and they declined to take the case. Downie wasn’t arrested until his August court date when prosecutors charged him with two felony counts of discharging a laser and two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Shin said the two counts of assault with a deadly weapon added challenges to negotiating a plea deal. The two counts would count as a second strike for Downie and his client didn’t want to take a chance of being exposed to more prison time. In the courtroom Friday, Bogardus said that other pilots have lost clearance because of laser pointer incidents. “There’s already been an American airline pilot who’s lost his medical to fly because his eye was struck with a laser,” he said. “You cannot blink fast enough. Once it hits your retina, it’s done.” Shin agreed with the seriousness of the offense. “I am not disputing whatsoever nor does my client that this is a dangerous conduct and that it could be very dangerous,” Shin said. Shin said he thought a reasonable sentence would have been felony probation with a two-to-four year prison sentence stayed. He also thought Downie should have been ordered to complete community service hours and visit junior high and high schools to relay the dangers and consequences of pointing a laser at an aircraft. “I thought something along this line would be very fair and the just thing to do,” Shin said. “I’m a defense attorney but I was actually a prosecutor for 15 years so I’ve done both sides of the work.” Prosecutor Joseph Hoffmann said that Downie’s prior serious felony strike on his record made him ineligible for probation. Shin said that in the late 1990s, Downie was convicted of residential burglary, which counted as a strike. In early 2000, he spent time in prison for a stalking conviction against his stepfather. He said his client was paroled and after meeting his wife and marrying her, Downie has been crime-free since about 2003 while raising the couple’s two sons. “I know conservative people will say with his kind of record and his being an idiot he should do away even longer,” Shin said. But the public defender said it’s common for him to run cases by family members, friends, even other district attorney’s and judges and he did just that with Downie’s plea deal. “They all told me, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that,’” Shin said. “This is Placer County for you.” Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com.