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The pinpoint of light coming from a laser pointer is designed to spread out as it travels through the air. It can start out small and then expand to cover large objects. An airplane traveling on the ground or at any altitude is vulnerable to a laser pointer. As the light spreads out, it turns into a large patch of light. Once it reaches the windows on the cockpit of a plane, the light can become large and pilots struggle to see past it. In California, shining a light on an aircraft is illegal. When it is done to impede the safe operation of an aircraft, a perpetrator can be found liable under California Penal Code Section § 248 PC.
Example of Guilty Behavior
An example of a violation concerning California Penal Code § 248 PC occurred when a man on his property and was playing around with a laser pointer. He heard the sound of a police helicopter and looked up to see where the helicopter was located. Once he discovered it was near him, the man took his laser pointer and aimed it at the windshield of the helicopter. He shined the laser pointer at the helicopter’s windshield and thought doing this was just a joke. The man was ultimately charged with the crime of shining a light at an aircraft to harm its ability to operate safely. Under this law, a laser pointer is classified as a device with the capacity to cause harm to a pilot who is trying to safely operate an aircraft.
Each year in California many people are charged with shining a light at an aircraft for the purpose of harming its operation. When this happens, there are certain elements a prosecutor must prove for a successful conviction. It must be established a defendant intentionally and willfully used a device with the ability to shine a light at an aircraft. The type of aircraft could be an airplane, helicopter or any other type of aircraft. It must be proven the device used to produce the light did provide an intensity of light which could impede the operation of an aircraft. It must also be established the intent of the defendant was to harm the safe operation of an aircraft.
Any person in California who found guilty of intentionally trying to interfere with the operation of an aircraft by discharging a laser at it can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A person can be convicted of this crime if the incident occurred when an aircraft was in the air or on the ground. A person found guilty could be incarcerated in a county prison for up to twelve months or required to pay a fine of up to $1,000 or both. Should a person be charged with maliciously and willfully discharging a laser at an aircraft; they could be convicted of a felony. An individual with this conviction could be incarcerated for up to three years and required to pay a fine of up to $2,000 or both.
Example Of Innocent Behavior
There have also been situations in California where a man has seen a plane in the dark that appears flying too low to make it past mountains the aircraft is approaching. The man is concerned about the pilot not being aware of the mountains. The man utilizes a laser pointer and shines a light into the plane’s cockpit in an effort to get the pilot’s attention and avoid the mountain. In this case, the man was not charged with a crime. His motivation was to help a pilot avoid making a deadly mistake.
A prosecutor will be responsible for showing the light used in the incident had the ability to provide sufficient illumination to jeopardize a pilot’s safe operation of an aircraft. Most flashlights available for purchase by the general public do not have the ability to provide the required level of illumination necessary to harm a pilot’s ability to operate an aircraft. It has been proven using any type of laser pointer is an effective way to impair a pilot’s safe operation of an aircraft.
During an eight-year period in California, over 130 people were arrested for pointing lasers at aircraft. There were over 79 convictions during this time providing a conviction rate of approximately 60 percent. It has been estimated that based on the number of incidents involving lasers being pointed at aircraft, perpetrators are caught 0.75 of the time.
When a person in California is charged with shining a light at an aircraft; it is a serious situation. Should a person be found guilty of this crime they could be required to spend time in a county jail as well as pay a fine. A guilty verdict also means a person will have a conviction on their record. This is time to contact an experienced attorney. They will be able to review the case and determine the best possible course of action. An attorney will know how to protect their client’s rights in this situation.