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Federal law lowers prosecutors' burden in laser-in-cockpit cases

A new rule signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 14 makes it a federal crime to shine a laser pointer into aircraft. Those convicted of pointing a laser into an airplane or helicopter cockpit can face up to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Federal prosecutors are threatening to aggressively enforce the new statute.

Up to now, pointing lasers at aircraft has been a federal crime, though prosecutors had to prove that the accused person did it to endanger people aboard. The only person in the Pittsburgh area to be charged with shining a laser into a cockpit in recent years is a University of Pittsburgh student who university police say shined a green laser pointer into a pair of ambulance helicopters as they flew to a nearby hospital on July 17.

The student admitted using the laser and said he did not realize that doing so was a safety hazard. Pilots say that laser beams can distract them and temporarily blind them if shined into their eyes.

Now, those accused of shining an aircraft with a laser can face federal criminal charges - even if, like the Pitt student, the accused did not realize the risks - as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The new law is a reaction to what authorities say is an increasing number of incidents. The FAA says that there were 3,591 incidents involving a laser in 2011, though it is not clear how many of them resulted in a crash or injuries.

The FAA says that there were 75 incidents of lasers in cockpits in the Pittsburgh area since 2009.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Punishment rises for aiming lasers at planes, helicopters," Torsten Ove, Feb. 28, 2012

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