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When laser 'fun' becomes felony

Lasers aimed at aircraft could bring prison time — or cause deadly mistakes

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Charles Brill

Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 5:58 am, Thu May 31, 2012.

Laser pointers are everywhere today. They are used in light shows, they are used in teachers' classrooms.

But beware: Those same laser pointers can land you behind bars if you point them up into the sky.

On Sunday, Lodi police officers arrested Charles Brill, 52, who they said pointed his green laser beam at a California Highway Patrol aircraft that was flying near his home.

But Brill is not the only one to be arrested for shining his laser pointer upwards.

In fact, according to CHP officer and chopper pilot Kevin Vinatieri, arrests for laser abuse happen more often than you might think.

These occurrences are so common that the Federal Aviation Administration passed a law in June 2011 stating that anyone pointing their laser into the cockpit of any flying craft could face serious fines and/or prison time.

In the Lodi case, CHP officers operating an aircraft pinpointed the coordinates of the source of a laser beam that was being pointed at their plane.

They notified Lodi police officers, who said they arrived at a home on the 500 block of Forrest Avenue to find Brill and his laser beam.

Brill said he meant no harm, only that he liked to look at the sparkle the beam created against the metal of the plane.

Late Wednesday, Brill remained in San Joaquin County Jail. He faces charges of intentionally pointing a laser beam at an aircraft, which is considered a felony in California.

National reports of lasers being pointed at airplanes nearly doubled in 2010 to more than 2,800, up from 2009 data.

In 2011, the FAA recorded more than 3,500 laser incident reports. That number was the peak of laser beam complaints recorded since the FAA began tracking the incidents back in 2005.

"Lasers have far more power and range, and their beams actually spread," Vinatieri said. "You may see a pinpoint on the ground, but as it goes up in the air, the beam gets bigger."

This may not sound so bad, but when the beam hits the cockpit of a plane, it lights up the entire space.

The light creates a starry illusion, and the effect eliminates any visibility pilots have from the cockpit.

Disorientation, even for one second, could be catastrophic or even deadly, Vinatieri said.

"The days of simple red lasers are over," he said. "There are powerful lasers out there, and they can cause permanent damage."

Should someone get caught pointing a laser beam at an aircraft, they may have to pay $11,000 for each violation. They could also get sent to prison.

For example, in October 2008, a California man was sentenced to two years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a plane.

In January 2011, a Massachusetts man received a three-year prison term for aiming his laser beam at a helicopter.

And on April 19, a man was arrested in Sacramento County for doing the same thing as Brill — pointing his laser beam at an aircraft passing overhead.

"There are laws for a reason," Vinatieri said. "This is not a joke."

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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