Last year (2014), there were 3,894 reported laser strikes against aircraft in the United States, or 10.67 incidents per day per the FBI. I find this to be an amazing amount, especially since this is just the “reported” incidents. When will this senseless fad/prank/mindless act end, or even start to slow down??!

Another conviction came this week in California. — A green laser. A police helicopter. Another dumb and dangerous decision.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern Dist. of California, a Bakersfield man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. His sentencing is scheduled for March, 2015, when the judge will consider the maximum penalty of five years in prison, along with his advisory Sentencing Guideline range and other sentencing factors.

Laser Pointers and Aircraft Don’t Mix!
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Laser Pointer Charges Continue As Court Examines Federal Law
FBI: Protecting Aircraft from Lasers, New Reporting Rewards Program

Court records indicate the man:

pointed a powerful green laser two times at Air-1, a Kern County Sheriff’s Office helicopter while it was flying 500 feet above the ground. As a result of the laser strikes, the tactical flight officer experienced a feeling of pressure, throbbing, and irritation in his eyes that lasted 30 minutes and the flight crew was forced to divert attention away from its law enforcement responsibilities. (My emphasis added.)

The federal statute that makes it a federal crime to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft was signed into law in 2012 by President Obama in response to increasing threats posed by laser illuminations of aircraft, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A. (Yes, merely “aiming” the laser is enough to commit the crime, at least one Court of Appeals has opined. See below.)

Travelblawg mentioned a similar case in August, 2014 of a Denver man charged with allegedly pointing a laser at the Denver Police Helicopter. See RELATED above for more occurrences reported here.

are laser pointers illegal

The FBI and the Air Line Pilots Association are campaigning to educate the public that lasing is a threat to aviation safety and it’s a federal crime. Source: FBI.

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, 756 F.3d 1070 (8th Cir. 2014).

In Smith, 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.

are laser pointers illegal

Shining a laser at an aircraft is a senseless act which places the lives of aircrews and passengers at risk.


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