Criminal Law - Federal

Can I Be Arrested for Pointing a Laser at an Airplane?

Key Takeaways:

  • Pointing a laser at planes is a federal crime that can land you in jail.
  • You could face big fines and prison time for a laser strike.
  • The FBI and FAA take laser pointing at aircraft very seriously.

Handheld laser pointers can be used for a wide variety of reasons, from work presentations to entertaining cats. However, these lasers can be dangerous when directed into someone’s eyes. This is definitely the case when it comes to pointing a laser light at a commercial airliner.

A laser beam is still dangerous and blinding to a pilot flying an occupied aircraft. In fact, what may seem like a harmless prank can lead to federal criminal charges. If you’ve found yourself under arrest for pointing a beam of light at an airplane or police helicopter, you should talk to a federal criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible.

Is Pointing a Laser Beam at an Airplane a Federal Crime?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the federal agency that enforces aviation safety regulations to promote civil safety for airspace and help control air traffic. According to the FAA, in 2022 there were 9,500 reported laser incidents involving airlines. Pointing a laser beam at an airplane can pose a danger to pilots. Laser beams, even at low milliwatts, can temporarily blind pilots and affect the safe operation of an aircraft. Even small red lasers are considered a serious threat to aviation safety.

Under federal law, shining a laser pointer at an airplane is a federal crime. To be convicted of a federal laser attack offense, the government must prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. For this charge, the defendant has to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft or in the flight path of an aircraft.

There are some exceptions, including allowing individuals authorized by the FAA to use laser pointers for conducting research or evaluating flight operations. However, excuses like doing it as a prank are not considered a legal defense.

What Are the Criminal and Civil Penalties for Pointing a Laser Beam at an Airplane?

Someone convicted of pointing a laser at an airplane can face criminal and civil penalties, including:

  • Up to five years in federal prison
  • A fine of up to $250,000
  • Probation

You could also face additional civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation and more than $30,000 for multiple laser incidents. In 2021, the FAA issued $120,000 in fines related to laser attacks.

What Defenses Do I Have Against Charges for a Laser Strike?

Just like any other type of criminal charge, you will have the opportunity to defend yourself in court. The government may also try to negotiate a plea bargain. Your lawyer will help you determine the best strategy for defending yourself and minimizing the negative effects of a conviction.

When investigating your case, your attorney will look for possible defense strategies like:

  • A lack of intent or that your actions were an accident
  • A lack of proof that you pointed the laser at an aircraft or protected airspace
  • An inability to prove that the tool used was a laser pointer under federal law
  • That federal law enforcement conducted an unlawful search and seizure

What Agencies Investigate Laser Strikes?

The FAA can only enforce civil regulations and issue civil penalties. The FBI can investigate laser pointer incidents and pursue federal charges. The FBI can also work with state and local police departments in pursuing a case like this. FAA Regional Operation Centers (ROC) take reports about laser strikes. Pilots are also required by the FAA to report laser strike incidents.

In short: It’s a federal crime to point a laser at an airplane. If you are facing misdemeanor or felony charges, don’t take them lightly. You could face jail time, fines, and civil penalties. For legal help, talk to a federal criminal defense attorney where you live for advice. Your attorney can speak to law enforcement on your behalf and provide you with critical advice before you answer any questions.

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