“Pointing a laser at the pilot of a helicopter or airplane not only puts the pilot and passengers of the aircraft at risk, it exposes the public on the ground to the danger of an emergency landing or even a crash,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh of Denver, CO. “What might seem like a harmless prank is far from it – laser blinding of pilots is a serious and dangerous crime that we will prosecute.”
This statement was part of yet another FBI Press Release regarding the alleged illegal aiming of a laser at an aircraft in the United States. In this case it was the indictment of a Denver man for allegedly pointing a laser at the Denver Police Helicopter. According to an indictment returned by a federal grand jury on July 2, 2014, twice on April 19, 2013 and once on April 20, 2013, the defendant allegedly aimed the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, namely a Bell helicopter operated by the Denver Police Department. The police helicopter, known as “Air One”, was able to use equipment on board to identify the source of the laser pointer.
The press release continued: “This case demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to ensuring the safety of the nation’s aviation transportation system and those on the ground,” said FBI Denver Special Agent in Charge Thomas Ravenelle. “With assistance from our law enforcement partners, the FBI will continue to aggressively investigate incidents involving laser attacks on aircraft.”
“Aiming a laser pointer at a helicopter or aircraft is not game – it is a crime,” said Denver Police Chief Robert White. “We are thankful that Air One has the technology to identify persons committing this type crime, as it did in this case.”
If convicted, the defendant faces not more than five years’ imprisonment, and up to a $250,000 fine, per count for each of his three counts.
A strikingly similar indictment came this week from Kansas City, Missouri. In another FBI Press Release, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri announced that a Kansas City, MO man was indicted by a federal grand jury on August 26, 2014 for allegedly aiming his laser pointer at a Kansas City Police Department helicopter on Oct. 8, 2013.
FBI Awareness Campaign
Earlier this year, the FBI released another campaign effort to draw the public’s attention to this dangerous crime, and included the offer of reward money for information leading to the arrest of persons intentionally “lasing” aircraft. Thousands of laser attacks go unreported every year. If you have information about a lasing incident or see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, call your local FBI field office or dial 911. The 12 FBI offices participating in the new program are Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Juan, and the Washington Field Office.
Interfering with the operation of an aircraft has long been a federal crime, but the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 specifically made it a federal felony to knowingly point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. The new law lowered the threshold for prosecution, Johnson said, “and the trend is on the rise for jail time in these cases.” In early 2014, for example, a 23-year-old California man was sentenced to 21 months in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office helicopter. Court records showed that the man deliberately tracked and struck the aircraft.
A Look At The Statute
The United States Court of Appeals For the Eighth Circuit examined the federal crime related to aircrafts, specifically 18 U.S. Code § 39A “Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft” in United States v. Smith, No. 13-2728 (8th Cir. June 27, 2014), 2014 WL 2898464.
A police helicopter investigated a report by commercial 737 pilots that their cockpit had been illuminated by a laser in the Omaha, Nebraska area. According to the court, the defendant aimed his laser pointer’s green beam at the police helicopter, blinding them in the same manner. After a brief game of “cat-and-mouse” of him repeatedly shooting the copter, the pilots were able to identify Smith’s exact location and dispatched a patrol vehicle.
Police located defendant Smith standing in his backyard pointing a green laser pointer skyward in the direction of the helicopter. He was arrested and questioned, stating “that earlier he had been shining [the laser] at aircraft that he thought were far enough away that it wouldn’t actually reach those aircraft” while he “denied actually shining [the laser] at the police” helicopter.
Defendant was prosecuted under 18 USC § 39A, which provides:
Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
The 8th Circuit examined the appeal of Defendant’s conviction on (1) whether defendant did “knowingly aim” the laser and (2) the relevance of certain expert testimony regarding the atmosphere close to the ground containing dust which reflects the laser’s beam.
The 8th Circuit concluded that merely aiming a laser in the direction of aircraft meets the statutory definition, regardless of the offender’s intent or belief that the laser did or could reach the aircraft. In other words, the offense requires that “an offender understand he or she is pointing or directing the laser’s beam at an aircraft, regardless whether the offender intends to strike the aircraft.” As such, the doctor’s testimony about the likelihood of the laser to reach the aircraft was irrelevant, and properly excluded by the district court.
Some FBI stats:
- Since the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began tracking laser strikes in 2005, statistics reflect a more than 1,100 percent increase in the deliberate targeting of aircraft by people with handheld lasers.
- In 2013, there were a total of 3,960 laser strikes reported—an average of almost 11 incidents per day. Industry experts say laser attacks present potential dangers for pilots.
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