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Laser Pointers and Aircraft

You may have seen this photograph making the rounds. I saw it yesterday on twitter. It shows a military helicopter hovering over the crowd in Cairo. The photo is mostly dark, with the helicopter eliminated by dozens of green, hand-held laser pointers. The protesters are trying to blind the pilot, preventing him from firing on them. Juxtaposed with the video of several helicopters flying by, trailing the Egyptian flag, and you get a sense for the uneasy balance between the protesters on the street and their would-be saviors, would be destroyers, the Egyptian military.

Laser pointers in Cairo

This is the future of civil warfare. Decentralized, crowd based countermeasures with no obvious organization or leadership. Fascinating stuff, particularly when you realize more and more local police departments are purchasing their own spy drones. But what if American protesters were to do the same to a helicopter over a protest here?

Laser Pointers in Pennsylvania

While this use of a laser pointer is not yet illegal under Pennsylvania law per se, illuminating an aircraft with a laser has been prosecuted as “interference with aircraft.” Legislation has been introduced several times since 2007, and most recently this past May, to make it a summary offense to knowingly shine a laser pointer on another with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm. It would be a misdemeanor of the third degree to do so to a motor vehicle. Under current Pennsylvania law, it is unclear if an aircraft would be considered a “motor vehicle.” (Federally, the answer is “no.”)

Until a law is in place, prosecutions continue under existing laws. A couple of examples include:

James Gautieri, 53, was sentenced on April 13 2011 to 33 months in prison plus a $10,000 fine for the April 30 2008 illumination of a police helicopter in Philadelphia.

A 22-year-old Philadelphia man will be spending the next year and a half in prison, for an incident where he aimed a green laser at a city police helicopter.

Additionally, you may be subject to Federal prosecution as of February 2012. Federally, the law is even harsher:
18 USC § 39A – Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft

(a) Offense.— Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

Five months after the legislation was adopted, Pennsylvania had its first prosecution:

Daniel Dangler, 30, of Philadelphia was sentenced to three months in jail plus seven months home confinement and three years supervised release, for aiming a green laser at a news media helicopter.

Could they prosecute them all?

If something like the Egyptian protests were to happen in the United States, it is very likely the authorities would attempt to identify at least a few of the perpetrators. It would be technologically impossible to round everyone up, at least with present technologies, but a lot of the same law enforcement tools that are used for other crimes would come into play.

For instance, when there is a major public disturbance, often times erroneously labeled a “riot” by the authorities, investigators will turn to social media to track down potential suspects. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all fertile sources for information on people who were involved. A possible suspect doesn’t even have to put his or her own information online. I have seen a number of cases where the police only have a photograph to go on and yet they manage to identify the person. locally, the State College Police Department uses their website, www.state, to post photographs of an unidentified subjects. A good rule of thumb is that if you go out in public for any length of time, you will be photographed, and possibly videoed, and those images will end up online. Just think about how the Boston bombers were identified. Boston is by no means as heavily surveilled as cities like London, but the secondary sources–amateur photographs, handheld video, and surveillance from various businesses all documented the scene prior to the explosions in enough detail to allow investigators piece together what happened and whodunit.

Dean Woomer’s Advice to Bluto

Shining a laser pointer at a aircraft is a stupid crime. I call it that because it isn’t the sort of thing someone just accidentaly does. Drugs or alcohol are often involved, but these don’t get you out of trouble. Far from it. If you find yourself charged with such an offense, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the law and potential defenses.

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