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US: First comments on new U.S. law, from Western Pa. prosecutor

On February 14 2012, President Obama signed a law making it illegal to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft, or its flight path. The first official comment we have seen on this law comes from David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania. He was quoted on February 27 as saying “This is a serious federal crime which could cause disastrous consequences and will have serious repercussions in the criminal justice system.”

Hickton noted that the new law makes it easier to prosecute since malicious intent is no longer required. Instead, it must be proven that the defendant “knowingly” targeted an aircraft or its flight path with a laser pointer. The new law’s penalty is up to $250,000 fine and/or prison for up to five years.

A map from the FAA Allegheny Flight Standards District Office shows the location of 51 laser events between September 2009 and October 2011. Arrests were made in only two of these cases: “Hickton and other officials concede it can be difficult to pinpoint culprits.”

Allegheny FSDO lasers 9-2009_10-2011
Click on map to enlarge it

From 90.5 FM Essential Public Radio and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A press release from Hickton’s office is below (click the Read More link). Edited Feb. 28 2012 at 3:15 PM EST to correct a statement from 90.5 FM.

[The following is a press release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, dated February 28 2012]

New Criminal Offense Contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Shining a laser pointer at an aircraft or its flight path is now expressly illegal under federal law, United States Attorney David J. Hickton announced today.

On Feb. 14, President Barack Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which modernizes the nation's aviation system. Section 311 of the Act adds a new provision (18 U.S.C. ' 39A) to the Criminal Code. Title 18, United States Code, Section 39A establishes a new criminal offense for aiming 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. The crime is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years' imprisonment. The statute was enacted in response to a growing number of incidents of pilots being distracted or even temporarily blinded by laser beams.

Mr. Hickton described the number of laser incidents reported to FAA in recent years as "staggering." In 2010, nationwide reports of lasers pointed at aircraft almost doubled from the previous year, rising to 2,826 from 1,527 in 2009. In 2011, the number of incidents significantly increased again to 3,591, the highest number of laser events ever recorded, and roughly the same number reported from 2004 through 2009.

Between September 2009 and the present, more than 75 aircraft laser events occurred within the Allegheny Flight Standards District Office.
  • 38 % affected Airline aircraft operations on final approach to Pittsburgh International Airport;
  • 36% affected helicopter Emergency Medical Service patient transport operations;
  • 16% affected charter operations;
  • 6% affected general aviation aircraft operations; and
  • 4% affected public use government aircraft operations.

"Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not only criminal, it is a serious safety issue for pilots," said Mr. Hickton. "Many high-powered lasers can completely incapacitate pilots, who are trying to fly safely to their destinations, and often times with hundreds of passengers aboard."

Last year alone, during dozens of laser/aircraft incidents, pilots reported temporary adverse visual effects such as flash blindness, afterimage, blurry vision, eye irritation and headache. According to the FAA, operational problems include momentary distraction, disorientation resulting in another pilot assuming control, aborted landings, loss of depth perception, and shutting down runways due to multiple laser strikes.

"Simply put, this legislation makes laser attacks on aircraft a federal crime - one we intend to rigorously investigate and prosecute," Mr. Hickton added. "Safeguarding the skies from laser attacks on aircraft is vitally important, and I promise the full force of the U.S. Attorney's Office to address this increasing problem."

Past federal prosecutions that have addressed this type of conduct have often relied upon another statute that requires proof that a defendant willfully interfered with or disabled, "with intent to endanger the safety of any person or with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life," anyone engaged in the authorized operation of an aircraft, The new law offers an alternative charging option in that it specifically prohibits the act of knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, and does not require proof of willfulness. Instead it requires proof that a defendant knowingly aimed the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft or its flight path. The statute does, however, carve out exceptions for certain individuals engaged in authorized research, such as certain persons working for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. There is also an exception for individuals using a laser emergency signaling device to send an emergency distress signal.

"Although lasers have many legitimate purposes, irresponsible or malicious use of these devices can threaten the lives of flight crews, passengers and even those on the ground. Laser targeting of aircraft is now a federal crime with real penalties, and we will vigorously prosecute anyone who misuses these devices," Mr. Hickton said.