Michigan House approves penalties for laser pranksters

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The House moved Thursday to discourage shining laser beams at Michigan’s pilots by overwhelmingly approving legislation making it a felony to do so.

Shining a laser pointer at a helicopter or plane flying over Michigan could mean five years in prison and a $10,000 fine under legislation the state House approved and moves to the Senate for consideration.

The “directed energy device” definition in the bills covers laser pointers regardless of whether light ends up being classified as a particle or a wave or both in the annals of science.

The two-bill package from Republican state Reps. Laura Cox of Livonia and Tom Barrett of Potterville would create state penalties for people who aim a “directed energy device” into pilots’ cockpits for the first time.

Cox has characterized the problem as “a public safety issue” that requires state penalties. Shining lasers at pilots is illegal under federal law and could result in up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but supporters say there’s no guarantee that federal officials will investigate or prosecute.

State police or local law enforcement are powerless to arrest laser pranksters unless there’s probable cause that they committed a separate criminal offense under state or local law.

The legislation would include shining laser pointers, “masers” — which use microwaves instead of light — “particle-beam weapons” and devices that shoot sound waves as a felony offense.

Law enforcement have warned legislators that shining laser pointers at planes or helicopters can be deadly because plexiglass windows can magnify and refract light, and at certain altitudes even “engulf and blind the entire cockpit,” said Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, who testified before a House panel about the issue in late February.

Bouchard called for lawmakers to do something about the problem after a county helicopter was hit three times by a laser beam near Commerce Township. Michigan State Police say one of their helicopters and three airplanes preparing to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport were also struck by lasers in February.

“If the state had its own law against pointing lasers or other potentially dangerous devices at aircraft, offenders could be prosecuted whether or not federal authorities choose to be involved,” a House Fiscal Agency analysis notes.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported more than 3,800 such laser pointer incidents in 2014.

“As a helicopter pilot, I know not being able to see even a few seconds can lead to catastrophic results,” Barrett said in a statement last week. He’s also a Michigan National Guard member.

“For a passenger airplane coming in for a landing, those are seconds you don’t have,” he continued. “For a helicopter a few hundred feet above the ground, you have many split-second decisions. It’s only a matter of time that this kind of behavior leads to a fatal accident, so we must address it.”