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.

In summary: