Shining a laser at a plane is a serious federal crime for good reasons & sentences should reflect the endangering of SAFETY

Aiming lasers at aircraft
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Aiming Lasers at Aircraft

Sentences Should Reflect the Level of Severity

  • The defendant pointed a green laser pointer 11 times at a Tulsa Police helicopter.
  • He pleaded guilty.
  • Federal sentencing guidelines recommended that the defendant serve 18 months to 24 months in prison.
  • The Assistant US Attorney correctly noted that lasers have a dangerous effect on pilots when the beams of light strike an aircraft. The light can temporarily blind pilots.
  • The defendant asked for leniency in light of his age (53), a limited criminal history and remorse for his actions.
  • The Judge sentenced the 53 year old man to one year’s probation.
  • The AUSA commented that did not object to the probation request filed on behalf of the defendant. “He’s the perfect candidate [for probation]. I don’t anticipate ever seeing Mr. Howell again.”

One should give due deference to the knowledge of the facts and familiarity with the individual which a US District Court Judge and an Assistant US Attorney must have, BUT

Congress recently recognized the severe consequences of pointing a laser at an aircraft by enacting:


Sec. 39A. Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft
(a) OFFENSE — 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 {maximum of  $250,000} or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both. 

Aiming lasers at aircraft department of justice

H. Rept. 112-11 – Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011 makes it clear that this is not just an annoyance, but a serious threat:

shining laser pointer airplaneA laser, when aimed at an aircraft, can create a visual distraction or cause discomfort or even damage to a pilot’s eyes. H.R. 386 addresses the high number of incidents involving lasers being pointed at aircraft while in flight. Many of these incidents are occurring during the take-off and landing portion of a flight, when the pilots need to be most alert. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported that pilots have had to relinquish control of their aircraft to their copilot. In the case of law enforcement aircraft, there are reports that responses to crime scenes by airborne police units were terminated due to laser interference. More than 2,800 laser incidents involving aircraft were reported in 2010.

Aiming lasers at aircraft incidents

Aiming lasers at aircraftThis bill recognizes the obvious and inherent danger of aiming a laser at an aircraft under any circumstance, as long as the offender knowingly aims the laser at the aircraft.a

The problem of lasers being shined into cockpits is so prevalent in some areas of the country that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Air Marshal Service, as well as State and local law enforcement, have established a Laser Strike Working Group to address the problem.

Here are references to other relevant federal statutes and regulations:

As well as state actions against pointing lasers at planes:

laser pointer cockpit

The Tulsa case is an example of a lighter sentence; has published a list of punishments from around the world. Here is a summary of the other judges’ decisions:

  1. 8 months in prison.
  1. Probationary sentence of community service and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
  1. Three years in federal prison without parole [maximum penalty in this list].
  1. 15 days in jail, perform 240 hours of community service, pay $3,740.89 in restitution to the master and chief mate, and serve 24 months probation (maritime).
  1. 10 weeks in jail.
  1. Pleaded guilty to a felony indictment…he was sentenced to six months in a federal prison.
  1. Three years probation, nine months home monitoring, and 200 hours of community service.
  1. Fifteen months in prison.
  1. 8 months in jail.
  1. 240 hours of community service [minimum penalty in this list].
  1. The list continues with another 100+ cases.

Many regard lasers as simple pointing tool or toy. That public opinion shows ignorance of their pernicious use. Blinding the cockpit is likely to result in loss of control. A 54 year old man should have been aware of the harm that he inflicted.

The site does an excellent job of providing information about this threat to safety. ALPA led the effort to have Congress enact 18 USC §38a. All aviation professionals should help to highlight instances in which inappropriate sentences may have been imposed. Without such emphasis, these dangerous implements will continue to be regarded as toys.


Tulsa man gets probation for pointing laser at police helicopter as federal case concludes
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2 Comments on "Shining a laser at a plane is a serious federal crime for good reasons & sentences should reflect the endangering of SAFETY"

  1. Having had a laser strike before, I agree there should be severe penalties. Educating the legal system would help, to include a simulation experience.

  2. This lW is not common knowledge these pointer are sold everywhere legally no one knows about this law until they accidentally break the law

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