Laser pointers are increasingly being used for more than just presentations, and a new law makes it a federal offense to direct the light from the device at an aircraft or its flight path. U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania David Hickton says that incidents involving laser pointers and aircraft are becoming an epidemic.
"This is not a nuisance. This is not a prank," he said. "This is a serious federal crime which could cause disastrous consequences and will have serious repercussions in the criminal justice system."
The law is a provision of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and alleviates some burden of proof in prosecuting defendants accused of pointed the beams at aircraft. Previously the prosecution was required to prove that the intent of the defendant was malicious, and that the defendant willingly pointed the beam at the aircraft.
The new law does not require proof of willfulness, but rather requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant knowingly targeted the aircraft or its path with a laser pointer. Anyone charged with the crime will be fined up to $11,000 for each count and/or imprisoned for up to five years.
"Simply put, this legislation makes laser attacks on aircraft a federal crime," Hickton said.
The number of times a laser was directed at an aircraft averaged nearly ten times a night in 2011. Within the Allegheny Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), more than 75 aircraft laser events occurred since September 2009. Wendy Grimm, Manager of the Allegheny FSDO, says public awareness is important in catching the perpetrators because it is hard to pinpoint the beam's exact location.
"We need the public to report any event they witness to law enforcement," Grimm said.
The Allegheny FSDO Safety Team has an outreach and awareness program on college campuses in response to an incident in July 2011, in which a student pointed a laser from the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus at two medical helicopters.
The hearing for 20-year-old James Parisi of Elkins Park, Montgomery County is scheduled for this spring. That case is being handled through the Allegheny County District Attorney's office. Parisi has been charged with risking a catastrophe.
There are exceptions to the law for those signaling emergency aircrafts or those working for the FAA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. Although no one has been hurt as a result of the laser beams, there is potential for harm according to Hickton.
The most serious incident occurred in 1997 and involved an Airworld Airbus carrying passengers overseas. According to a report published by the FAA in April 2001, the pilot had to glance away from the cockpit during flight because of a laser pointer. European nations responded to the incident by banning laser pointers of powerful wavelengths.