House Endorses Criminal Penalties for Aiming Laser Beams at Aircraft in Flight

The House passed a bill Tuesday that would make it illegal to aim a laser pointer at the cockpit of an airplane in flight.

Florida Republican Ric Keller said he introduced the measure (HR 1615), which passed by voice vote, because the behavior currently is not explicitly outlawed.

"Surprisingly there is no federal statute on the books making it illegal to shine a laser beam into an aircraft cockpit unless one attempts to use the Patriot Act to claim that it was a terrorist attack," Keller said.

The need for the legislation is a matter of common sense, Keller said. "It is only a matter of time before one of these laser-beam pranksters ends up killing over 200 people in a commercial airline crash," he warned.

Under the bill, the crime would be punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.

The measure makes exceptions for military training and research, other authorized aviation research and for individuals using a laser device to send an emergency distress signal.

The bill is partially a response to a case in which a New Jersey man pleaded guilty to shining a laser pointer at an aircraft approaching New Jersey's Teterboro Airport in December 2004, temporarily blinding the two pilots.

The man was sentenced last year to two years' probation under the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act (PL 107-56), which was the only applicable federal statute.

The defendant could have faced 20 years in prison, but prosecutors found no evidence that terrorism was involved.

Keller said Federal Aviation Administration data shows about 500 incidents since 1990 in which pilots have been disoriented or temporarily blinded by laser exposure, including 90 cases in 2005 alone.

In an effort to boost the bill's prospects in the Senate, it has been modified slightly from a similar version that the House passed in the 109th Congress.

The changes include placing the crime under a section of criminal law associated with physically damaging a plane and allowing the attorney general to determine additional exceptions beyond those already in the bill.

The Judiciary Committee approved the bill by voice vote May 2.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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