WASHINGTON – People who aim laser pointers at planes could face fines of up to $250,000 and five years in prison under a bill passed Thursday by the House.
Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said a series of reported incidents involving aircraft cockpits and laser beams had heightened safety concerns. He said it was only a matter of time before someone "ends up killing over 200 people in a commercial airline crash."
After a spike in reports related to "laser illumination" last December, a reporting system was established so the Federal Aviation Administration could track the trend, said Laura Brown, an agency spokeswoman. Since late last year, 287 incidents have been documented.
FAA research shows that lasers can disorient or temporarily blind pilots during takeoff and landing and can cause permanent damage.
Keller, the bill's sponsor, cited two incidents he says illustrate the need for the legislation.
In the first, a police helicopter in Seminole County, Fla., was hit twice with a laser beam while searching for burglary suspects at night. The beam, which Keller said was coming from a man standing in his backyard with a pen-sized laser light, disoriented the pilots and had them fearing they might be the target of rifle fire.
The legislation, which was passed by voice vote, also would fill a gap in federal law, Keller said.
A man who pointed a green laser known as a Jasper at an airplane preparing to land in New Jersey last year, temporarily blinding the flight crew, pleaded guilty last month to violating a provision of the USA Patriot Act. He could be sentenced to probation or up to 20 years in prison.
The man's lawyer has said the Patriot Act should not have been used in the case because the law should be limited to acts of terrorism.
Keller said the crime his bill creates would offer an alternative to the Patriot Act if it doesn't really apply.
"It's often a case of pranksters making stupid choices to put pilots and their passengers at risk," he said.
A memo sent to law enforcement agencies by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department last year said there is evidence that terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons.
Noah Acres, president of LuckyDuck Cool Tools, which manufactures the Jasper, supports the bill.
"I think it is probably more appropriate to charge somebody under those circumstances than it would be to do so under the Patriot Act," he said. "It should be a crime."
Acres said Jasper models can reach up to 30,000 feet and come with warnings not to shine the beam at people, cars, animals or aircraft. But he said stargazers often use the lasers to point out objects in the sky, and so it's just a matter of caution.
The legislation now travels to the Senate, where Keller's office says it is expected to get quick approval.