Resulting in an automatic felony charge, a grown man behind the wheel of a car foolishly pointed a laser up at a taxpayer-owned law enforcement helicopter in a Manatee County, Florida, subdivision populated by citizens peacefully enjoying their private space, never suspecting anything could come crashing down upon them.
Pointing a laser at any aircraft is a federal crime, not relegated to enforcement by only local authorities.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they maintain an ongoing awareness campaign and work with all law enforcement agencies “to reduce laser strikes throughout the country.”
Per the FAA website, “pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal offense” and their investigators/attorneys “work closely with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to pursue civil and criminal penalties against people who purposely [formed intent] aim a laser at an aircraft.”
In the case study we showcase today, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies involved, particularly the two on-duty aviation unit deputies occupying the law enforcement chopper overhead, are listed as victims (crimes against justice). Here is how it went down…
Getting right to the obvious meat and potatoes, the FAA connotes that “Pointing lasers at aircraft creates a serious safety risk to pilots and may damage their vision.” The elements are interrelated: the more immediate effect is blinding aviators which can cause the craft and those onboard to spiral out of control. Barring that potential catastrophe, vision woes throughout the life course are likely, thus creating permanent damage amounting to career-ending disability—a life made needlessly constrained.
Moreover, the possibility of a laser-pointing fool causing such a tragic outcome for police aviators is exacerbated by the fact that innocent citizens going on about their lives are endangered by an aircraft crashing down upon them without much warning. Culprits probably do not consider those ramifications and deserve to face the consequences, all achieved by such a stupid act.
(Photo courtesy of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.)
As touched upon above, local law enforcement agencies can criminally charge anyone caught pointing a laser at any aircraft, in tandem with the FAA taking “enforcement action against people who violate Federal Aviation Regulations” by imposing “civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation” and “civil penalties up to $30,800 against people who commit multiple laser violations.”
An example of multiple laser-use violations against aircraft would be something like aiming/shining a laser at police pilots and network news choppers whose reporters are also overhead during the same major incidents below.
More Common Than You Think
The FAA compiles data regarding laser-pointing instances and publishes its findings annually, with 9,457 reported incidents in 2022 (the federal agency’s latest reporting cycle). Looking at prior years’ stats, there were 384 laser-pointing recordings in 2006—it has steadily increased since that year.
Why the increase throughout the years? The FAA compiled a list comprising a few tenets to help understand the increase:
- The availability of inexpensive laser devices
- The abundance of lasers for sale in stores and online
- The number of lasers being given as gifts
- Stronger power levels that enable lasers to hit aircraft at higher altitudes
- Greater awareness by pilots to report laser incidents, due in large part to the FAA’s extensive outreach program
(Photo courtesy of the Northumbria Police.)
A Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) spokesperson shared that they have been targeted by laser pointers lately: “Since October 5, 2023, the MCSO Aviation Unit has been struck by a laser THREE times! Pointing a laser at an aircraft is, at minimum, a third-degree felony. It is dangerous and illegal. Do not do it!”
Scrutinizing the footage provided by the MCSO, you’ll notice that the suspect behind the wheel, armed with an activated laser pointer, refused to comply, and generated the makings of a standoff situation.
With marked cruisers (their lightbars fully illuminated) and deputies verbalizing commands from behind cover (cruiser doors), there was not going to be any chance for this criminal mini-saber-wielder to deny he possessed/used a laser recklessly. Several times, he aimed the laser at the sheriff’s chopper, then tossed it out his car window (collected as evidence, from which the likelihood of lifting his fingerprints from it is strong).
As well, deputies’ body-worn cameras caught the action, as did the in-car recording systems still employed by most Florida law enforcement agencies. Plenty of evidence, including the footage recorded by the police pilots being targeted.
In addition to the footage posted above, I located another version of the same incident, this one showing the suspect pointing the green-light laser at the sheriff’s chopper before any ground units (patrol deputies in cruisers) were behind him on the ground, so it appears what preceded this felony take-down and subsequent arrest was the bad actor targeting the helicopter.
(I’m thinking this was not this guy’s first light show.)
Whether he knew it was law enforcement or not is irrelevant; again, it is illegal to point a laser at any aircraft of any kind, as per the federal government’s Public Law 112-95 titled the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.“
“In addition to the federal law, some cities and states also have laws against shining a laser at aircraft. Federal, state, and local prosecutors have sentenced laser violators to jail time, community service, probation, and additional financial penalties for court costs and restitution,” cited an FAA bulletin.
Florida Statute 784.062 “Misuse of Laser Lighting Devices” is a felony with variations in degree:
(1) As used in subsection (2), the term “laser lighting device” means a handheld device, not affixed to a firearm, which emits a laser beam that is designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object. As used in subsection (3), the term “laser lighting device” means any device designed or used to amplify electromagnetic radiation by stimulated emission.
(2) Any person who knowingly and willfully shines, points, or focuses the beam of a laser lighting device at a law enforcement officer, engaged in the performance of his or her official duties, in such a manner that would cause a reasonable person to believe that a firearm is pointed at him or her commits a noncriminal violation, punishable as provided in s. 775.083.
(3)(a) Any person who knowingly and willfully shines, points, or focuses the beam of a laser lighting device on an individual operating a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(b) Any person who knowingly and willfully shines, points, or focuses the beam of a laser lighting device on an individual operating a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft and such act results in bodily injury commits a felony of the second degree.
Notice the phrase “knowingly and willingly” mentioned several times in that Florida statute. As mentioned above and clarified in brackets, knowingly and willingly form “intent.”
What if you have intent but feign a lack of common sense by claiming you didn’t know it was illegal?
While writing this material, the answer arrived organically (just published) with current implications…
According to the Nebraska Examiner, “[Richard C.] Detty pleaded guilty June 28  and wrote he was pointing the laser at different buildings to see how far it would go. He then heard the helicopter and pointed the laser near it.”
Mr. Detty told the court that he was unaware it was a crime to do such a thing and that he harbors regret.
The judge’s response to that was to go light on Detty, sentencing him to 15 months in prison and two years of supervised release.
“The charge carried a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and up to three years of supervised release,” reporter Zach Wendling wrote.
He added: “Detty’s plea agreement states the pilot was startled by the laser light but maintained level flight, and neither the pilot nor an observer in the helicopter was injured. The observer used the video camera and infrared camera in the helicopter to identify the source of light outside Skinner Baking Company and sent officers to investigate.” (Sounds like the logical sequence enacted by the Manatee County aviators/deputies.)
What if that testimony was the exact opposite, resulting in disabling on-duty deputies who may never serve again? What if those last few words imply they couldn’t due to being deceased from line-of-duty death? A direct result of the laser pointer jeopardizing the law-enforcing aviators, leading to the aircraft’s earthbound spiral, obliterating homes below, with citizens in them?
(Photo courtesy of the London Metropolitan Police.)
According to court affidavits, someone in the judiciary recorded this: “There is no evidence to show that Defendant had specific knowledge of the risk to the helicopter from illuminating it with a laser pointer.”
Any of this laser-pointing idiocy could jeopardize a pilot’s visual acuity, imposing a level of blindness which could, in turn, cause the aviator to lose navigational control and plummet. That would be especially catastrophic in a residential community, which the Manatee County incident appeared to be.
As if law enforcement everywhere does not already have enough to contend with…