Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lynden man gets prison time for shining spotlight at border helicopter (The Bellingham Herald)

Lynden man gets prison time for shining spotlight at border helicopter
Published: 08/04/11 5:24 pm

A Lynden man who shined a spotlight on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter patrolling over his home in September was sentenced to two months in prison Thursday, Aug. 4.

Seattle U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly also sentenced Wayne Groen to 90 days of home detention, 120 hours of community service, three years of community supervision and a $5,000 fine for incapacitating an individual during the authorized operation of an aircraft.

"What you did was stupid," Zilly told Groen in court, according to a U.S. Department of Justice release. "We're all lucky that you are standing here convicted of a charge, and that the helicopter did not crash."

According to records filed in the case and testimony in the trial:

At about 9:35 p.m. Sept. 22, the Customs Air and Marine division helicopter was patrolling the U.S.-Canada border near Lynden. The pilot was wearing night-vision goggles and was blinded by a spotlight coming from the ground. The co-pilot had to help the pilot to fly out of the area.

The helicopter returned soon after to find the source of the spotlight, and pilots and investigators on the ground determined the light was coming from the vicinity of Groen's home. When an agent drove up Groen's street, Groen shined the spotlight at him and got out of his car with the spotlight in his hand.

The defense argued Groen had been sleeping when the helicopter came low over his house. He grabbed the spotlight to warn it away, fearing the pilot wasn't seeing his house.

The incident came at a time of increasing tensions between border residents and federal border security agents. After Groen's arrest, Whatcom County residents packed a meeting with border officials to complain about agents speeding through private property, damaging fields, loitering and not being responsive to residents' complaints.

The statutory maximum for Groen's charge is 20 years in prison, though the prosecution had recommended a sentence of 10 months. The defense argued for no prison time, requesting instead that Groen get one year of probation, pay a $5,000 fine and do 120 hours of community service.

"This is not a victory for the government. It's not a victory for Wayne," Groen's defense attorney Jeffrey Lustick said. "This is a closure."

In the next few months, Groen, 42, will get notice in the mail that he needs to report to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center, where he'll serve his two months. Lustick said Groen is looking forward to getting the sentence behind him and hopes that this can be the beginning of a better relationship between border residents and the Border Patrol.

"We're looking at it as a positive step," Lustick said. "We're just hopeful that this will change things in the community in a positive way. We're hoping this is an opportunity for the Border Patrol and the community to come together and talk about the real issues that are happening."

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