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Michigan cops: Laser pointers ‘terrifying’ pilots

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Shining a laser pointer at a plane or helicopter can have “deadly consequences,” Oakland County Sheriff’s Office chopper pilot Bill Christensen told state legislators Tuesday, urging support for bills that would make it a felony to intentionally shine lasers at any aircraft.

Sheriff Mike Bouchard called for legislative action last week after a county helicopter was hit by a laser beam three times near Commerce Township. Michigan State Police suspect a single individual flashed a laser at one of their helicopters and three airplanes preparing to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Friday night.

“We may think lasers are relatively weak light source on the ground, but when it reaches a cockpit of a helicopter or airplane it’s magnified by the plexiglass window,” Christensen said in testimony before the House Committee on Law and Justice.

“It comes in the aircraft and it’s refracted. It becomes very bright. The field of vision can be tremendously compromised. At certain altitudes it can engulf and blind the entire cockpit.”

New legislation, sponsored by Reps. Laura Cox and Tom Barrett, would prohibit a person from intentionally aiming “a beam of directed energy emitted from a direct energy device” at an aircraft or into the path of an aircraft. Violators would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

“This is a public safety issue,” said Cox, R-Livonia. “A laser pointer beam expands at altitude and can completely blind a pilot in the cockpit, endangering not only the life of the pilot, but potentially many others,” including passengers.

Laser pointers, sights and pens are widely available online and in gun stores, according to Christensen, a U.S. Army veteran who said they look “remarkably like tracer rounds from a firearm” when they strike an aircraft.

“It’s terrifying,” he said.

Federal law already outlaws shining lasers at planes or helicopters, with violators subject to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. But creating a state law is “critically important” for efforts to crack down on the behavior, according to Michigan State Police Sgt. Timothy Fitzgerald.

Currently, state and local authorities can track down individuals suspected of shining laser beams at aircraft, but they generally cannot make arrests. Instead, they alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which can then submit cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of potential prosecution.

“There are federal priorities that are higher, quite frankly, so a lot of times there’s nothing we can do with these guys,” Fitzgerald told legislators.

The past Friday night, state police were able to help track down a man near Highland Park they suspected of shining a laser at three passenger jetliners preparing to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and a state police helicopter.

Local police were able to arrest the man because he had warrants out on unrelated charges, Fitzgerald said, but they would not have had the authority to take him into custody for the alleged laser behavior alone.

The legislation “will give us a tool where we can immediately take action, and I think if we start making some arrests in these cases, we’re going to start seeing the incidents go down,” he said.

Despite tips from the public, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office has been unable to discover who shined a beam at their helicopter on Feb. 20, Christensen said.

Michigan State Police choppers have been hit by lasers 25 times over the past five years, including 15 times in 2016, according to Sgt. Jerry King, a pilot with the aviation unit, which patrols over Detroit, Flint and Saginaw five nights a week as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s “secure cities” partnership.

“Three of our crew members, including myself, have had to seek medical attention for laser strikes that damaged our eyes,” King testified. “Usually if it’s minor just with some eye drops and a doctor’s visit. It’s kind of like a welder’s burn or a sunburn to your eye that can go away in three to four days.”

At least 251 laser-aircraft incidents were reported in Michigan between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. There were 3,895 incidents reported nationwide and 51 incidents in Michigan during 2014, the last year data is available.

Red laser pointers that were ubiquitous a decade ago have given way to higher intensity green laser beams, according to Barrett, R-Potterville, who pulled up on his phone during Tuesday’s hearing and pointed out they can be purchased for $25 to $50.

“I’ve never had to encounter this personally, but I’ve talked to many pilot that have,” said Barrett, second-term legislator who also flies helicopters for the National Guard. “It’s a very serious concern and something we need to get ahead of.”

The legislation is broadly written so that it could also prohibit aircraft interference from other advancing technologies, including electromagnetic radiation, Barrett told his colleagues.

The prospective language concerned Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, who questioned its origin and said she would prefer the Legislature focus only on rules that could lead to successful prosecution in laser beam cases.

“I’m not opposed to protecting our police and our pilots,” she said, “but let’s be smart about it.”

Committee Chairman Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, did not call for a vote on the bills Tuesday but said he may do so as early as next week.

“Although issues were raised about definitions being over expansive, I take the position of being forward thinking and checking out technology that is continually advancing,” Kesto said.