NEWARK, N.J. – Federal authorities Tuesday used the Patriot Act (search) to charge a man with pointing a laser beam at an airplane overhead and temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot.
Banach, 38, of Parsippany admitted to federal agents that he pointed the light beam at a jet and a helicopter over his home near Teterboro Airport last week, authorities said. Initially, he claimed his daughter aimed the device at the helicopter, they said.
He is the first person arrested after a recent rash of reports around the nation of laser beams hitting airplanes.
Banach was charged only in connection with the jet. He was accused of interfering with the operator of a mass transportation vehicle and making false statements to the FBI, and was released on $100,000 bail. He could get up to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
Banach's lawyer, Gina Mendola-Longarzo, said her client was simply using the hand-held device to look at stars with his daughter on the family's deck. She said Banach bought the device on the Internet for $100 for his job testing fiber-optic cable.
"He wasn't trying to harm any person, any aircraft or anything like that," she said.
The jet, a chartered Cessna Citation (search), was coming in for a landing last Wednesday with six people aboard when a green light beam struck the windshield three times at about 3,000 feet, according to court documents. The flash temporarily blinded both the pilot and co-pilot, but they were later able to land the plane safely, authorities said.
"Not only was the safety of the pilot and passengers placed in jeopardy by Banach's actions, so were countless innocent civilians on the ground in this densely populated area," said Joseph Billy, agent in charge of the FBI's Newark bureau.
Then, on Friday, a helicopter carrying Port Authority detectives was hit by a laser beam as its crew surveyed the area to try to pinpoint the origin of the original beam.
According to the FBI, the Patriot Act does not describe helicopters as "mass transportation vehicles." As for why Banach was not charged with some other offense over the helicopter incident, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, did not immediately return calls for comment.
A few hours after the helicopter was hit by the laser, FBI agents canvassed Banach's neighborhood, trying to find the source of the beams. Banach told the agents it was his daughter who shined the laser at the helicopter, according to court papers.
Similar incidents have been reported in Colorado Springs, Colo., Cleveland, Washington, Houston and Medford, Ore., raising fears that the light beams could temporarily blind cockpit crews and lead to accidents.
Last month, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department sent a memo to law enforcement agencies saying there is evidence that terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons. But federal officials have said there is no evidence any the current incidents represent a terrorist plot.