Laser Pointers, Aviation, and the Law
While it is legal in the USA to possess any type of laser including high
power laser pointers on steroids or "hand-held" lasers, the use and abuse
in public of any laser - and especially with respect to aviation - is taken
very seriously by law enforcement agencies. While one could always be
prosecuted under a variety of statutes, there is now a specific federal
crimal offense one for laser pointer/aircraft violations,
"18 USC 39A - Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft", which
carries a prison sentence of up to 5 years and fine up to $250.000.
But there are broader laws including "18 USC 32(a)(5): Willful
Interference with Safe Operation of Aircraft" and "18 USC 32(a)(5)
and (a)(8): Conspiracy or Attempt to Willfully Interfere with Safe
Operation of Aircraft" (part of the Patriot Act) with penalties up
to a 20 year prison sentence and $250,000 fine. There is also a civil offense,
"14 CFR Part 91.11: Prohibits Interference with Crewmembers", which
carries a $11,000 fine per incident. (A Web search
will easily find the complete details of these laws.) There are
State and local ordinances as well but these Federal laws are the
ones we will concentrate on.
To put it succinctly, anyone who is found to have knowlingly aimed a laser
at an aircraft may face jail time similar to that for major felonies like
robbery and murder. With the exponentially increasing number of
incidents, Federal authorities are taking this very seriously.
Being caught may also be getting easier as high tech gear (advanced
video cameras, directional position sensors, GPS, etc.) is making it
more likely that culprits will be caught, especially if they
illuminate a police airplane or helicopter! Federal
authorities are taking this growing threat very seriously. This is no slap
on the wrist. Those found guilty may serve significant jail time and
pay hefty fines - up to 20 years and $250,000. And prosecutors are
going for long sentences.
Unless settled out of court (usually involving a guilty plea), the jury
trials may take several days with numerous witnesses including legal and
technical experts for both sides. Convictions on at least some of the
charges are virtually guaranteed once the jury realizes
the potential risk of a catastrophe posed by lasers aimed at
aircraft, especially at night, and the mention of the Patriot Act
implying terrorism, even if there is no direct evidence.
- Any incident involving a laser beam shining on an aircraft may result
in prosecution by Federal authorities including the FBI, and also by
state and local authorities.
- If the laser's output power is over the 5 mW legal limit for laser
pointers, there will likely be more and stronger charges and the prosecution
may attempt to prove that the laser was tampered with, especially if it
has the usual "<5 mW" sticker and/or has marks on the case suggesting
an attempt at disassembly.
- Multiple hits on an aircraft ratchets up the pressure to add charges
of "targeting" or "tracking" (and also makes it easier to get caught!).