Friday, May 16, 2014

Jury acquits homeowner who fired shots to ‘get paraglider’s attention’

EAST WENATCHEE — The Orondo man who admitted firing a shotgun to warn a paraglider away from his Box Canyon Road property was found not guilty Thursday on a charge of unlawfully displaying a weapon.

A three-man, three-woman Douglas County District Court jury found Stephen B. Flinn, 66, not guilty on the gross misdemeanor charge, which could have yielded up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Flinn saw the paraglider, Matt Senior of Issaquah, sail past his living room window last July 2. He told Douglas County sheriff’s deputies he emerged from his home carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and fired it into the air “to get his attention.”

Flinn told Senior, then hovering 60 to 80 feet overhead, to get away from his property. Senior, an 11-year veteran paraglider, swore at Flinn and threatened to come to his home and assault him. Flinn fired another round into the air as Senior departed.

Both shots were aimed away from Senior and his paragliding canopy, which led to the misdemeanor charge of displaying a weapon rather than a felony charge of assault. Senior told deputies and testified on the stand he heard three shots total.

The jury debated for more than an hour, at one point asking Judge Judith McCauley if they had to give a unanimous verdict.

In his summation, Flinn’s attorney, John Brangwin of Wenatchee, said other paragliders had passed over Flinn’s property that day, but sailed far higher. He called Flinn’s confrontation of Senior a defense of his property, and invoked the spectre of drones and “black helicopters” spying on citizens’ private lives.

“We can debate whether he’s a trespasser or not, because his feet are not on the ground,” Brangwin told the jury, referring to Senior. “… But at what point do you have the right to protect your home?”

He also questioned why Senior wasn’t charged for his verbal threat to Flinn, calling it “a direct threat to my client for which he’ll face no consequence.”

Douglas County deputy prosecutor Jason Mercer said Senior’s threat was made “in the heat of the moment,” after he was alarmed by Flinn’s first gunshot and saw Flinn carrying a firearm and yelling from the ground below him.

Flinn later told deputies he’d been having problems with gliders “trespassing on his property,” according to police reports. But Mercer noted Flinn never called police to complain.

“What he chose to do instead was march out of his house with a loaded shotgun and fire a shot into the air,” Mercer told the jury. It was Senior who called deputies after he landed safely at Chelan Falls.

Flinn did not face any threat from Senior or other fliers, and acted only out of irritation, Mercer said. Senior could not be reached for comment Friday morning.

Flinn’s home, built on a Columbia River bluff in 2012, lies along a popular flight path for paragliders taking off from Chelan Butte, across the river in Chelan County. The thermal drafts that rise near the cliff face allow fliers to regain altitude.

Mercer said Friday the verdict doesn’t appear to establish any “zone of privacy” involving airspace above a person’s home.

“If any kind of incidents like this happen again, I think calling the sheriff is the right thing to do for both parties,” he said. “It’s not up to me whether there’s a legitimate privacy interest there. I think that’s up to the legislature.”

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