Feds get tough on laser pointer aircraft attacks
Prosecutors hope a new law that makes it a federal crime to shine laser pointers into airplane and helicopter cockpits will reduce a problem they consider to be of "almost epidemic" proportions.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton and other officials concede it can be difficult to pinpoint culprits. Authorities nabbed suspects in just two of 71 incidents reported in Western Pennsylvania since September 2009 -- including 27 that targeted commercial flights approaching Pittsburgh International Airport and 26 involving medical helicopters.
Investigators have linked no crashes to laser pointers, but victims of laser attacks reported problems including flash blindness, blurry vision and disorientation. Nationwide, pilots last year reported 3,591 laser-pointer incidents, the most ever, the Federal Aviation Administration said. That was up from 2,826 in 2010 and 1,527 in 2009.
"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," Hickton said on Monday at a news conference in the federal courthouse, Downtown.
The law carries a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 5 years in federal prison.
James Parisi, 21, of Montgomery County is awaiting trial in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court on charges of shining a laser pointer at two medical helicopters on July 17 from the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. Alerted by pilots, University of Pittsburgh police went to the Cathedral and arrested Parisi, then a Pitt junior, as he tried to leave the building after a second incident.
"My client is a good kid. He just made a mistake. He obviously regrets anything that happened that night," said Kevin Zinski, a Downtown attorney representing Parisi.
Parisi faces two state felony counts of risking a catastrophe, each offense carrying a maximum fine of $15,000 and up to 7 years in prison. He faces a Federal Aviation Administration fine of up to $11,000 per violation.
Convictions in laser-pointer cases have required prosecutors to prove that defendants intended to endanger people through their actions. The new law requires only "proof that a defendant knowingly aimed the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft or its flight path."
Exceptions to the law include those conducting research for the FAA, Defense Department and Homeland Security, and people trying to send emergency distress signals.
Wendy Grimm, manager of the FAA Allegheny Flight District Standards Office in Brentwood, said she hopes the law draws attention to the issue and prompts anyone who witnesses or knows about a laser attack to speak up.
In most cases, it is hard to determine where a laser attack originated or to find a suspect by the time authorities arrive, officials said.
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