Because pilots of airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft rely heavily on visual prompts and aircraft sensors, any visual interference from the ground can have disastrous results.
For this reason, it is a crime in California to shine a light or point a laser at an aircraft to interfere with its operation. The offense can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specific ordinance violated and the facts of the case. You could face up to three years in prison and significant fines if you are convicted.
Penal Code 247.5 PC says, “Anyone who willfully and maliciously discharges a laser at an aircraft, whether in motion or flight, while occupied, is punishable as either a misdemeanor by up to one year in county jail for up to one year or a fine up to $1,000, or a felony for 16 months, two years, or three years, or by a fine of $2,000.
Under this statute, a “laser” is a device that uses “the natural oscillations of atoms or molecules between energy levels for generating coherent electromagnetic radiation in the ultraviolet, visible, or infrared spectrum region, and when discharged exceeds one milliwatt continuous wave.”
Related Penal Code 248 PC says, “Anyone who, with the intent to interfere with the operation of an aircraft, willfully shines a light or other bright device, of an intensity capable of impairing the function of an aircraft, shall be punished by a fine up to $1,000, or up to one year in county jail, or both.
To be convicted of violating these laws, a prosecutor must prove that you willfully shined a light at an aircraft, the light had an intensity capable of impairing the operation of an airplane, and that you intended to interfere with the operation of the plane. Let's examine these statutes more closely below.
California Laws Against Shining a Light or Laser at Aircraft
As noted, the offense of shining a light or pointing a laser at an aircraft falls under one of two related ordinances.
Penal Code 248 PC makes it a crime to shine a light or bright device at an aircraft such that the intensity of the light could interfere with its operation. This offense is a misdemeanor.
Penal Code 247.5 PC makes it a crime to "willfully and maliciously" discharge a laser at an occupied aircraft while in motion or in flight with the intent to interfere with its operation. This offense is considered more serious. It is a wobbler, which can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
With either of these offenses, prosecutors don't need to show that you affected the operation of the aircraft in question nor that you put anyone in danger. They must only demonstrate that you intended to interfere with the operation of the aircraft.
The misdemeanor penalties for PC 248 shining a light at an aircraft to interfere with operations is a maximum of 1 year in jail and fines up to $1000. The legal penalties for PC 247.5 maliciously discharging a laser at an aircraft are:
- If charged as a misdemeanor, you could face one year in jail and fines up to $1000.
- If charged as a felony, it is punishable by 16 months, two years, or three years in prison and a fine up to $2000.
However, rather than imposing jail time, a judge has the discretion to impose misdemeanor summary probation.
What are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Tom is playing with a high-powered LED light at night. Seeing a jet coming in for a landing at a nearby airport, he shines the flashlight at the aircraft to see if he can get it to change direction. Tom could be charged under PC 248.
EXAMPLE 2: Shelly is playing with laser light, aiming it at specific objects. It's a cloudy evening, so she points the laser at the clouds to see if she can see the dot on the clouds. A private aircraft flies through the beam. Shelly would not be guilty under PC 247.5 because her actions were not willful or malicious.
EXAMPLE 3: As a prank, Aaron aims a camp flashlight at the cockpit of a helicopter as it passes overhead, attempting to distract the pilot. While Aaron's intentions were wrong, he is not guilty under PC 248 because the light he used was not powerful enough to disrupt operations.
What Are the Common Defenses of PC 247.5 or PC 248?
A good criminal defense attorney can implement several defense strategies to combat the charges of shining a light or laser at an aircraft. These are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you had no malicious intent. Prosecutors must show that your actions were willful. Suppose your attorney can establish that you inadvertently pointed the light or laser at the aircraft, on accident or without intent to interfere. In that case, you should not be convicted of this crime.
Perhaps an argument could be made that the light was incapable of interfering with aircraft. Regardless of your intentions, you can only be convicted of a crime if the light you shone at the aircraft had enough intensity to interfere with the operation of the aircraft potentially.
Perhaps we can argue that you acted under duress. If, for example, someone coerced you to aim the laser or light by threatening you or someone else with harm, you may be able to avoid conviction on those grounds.
Perhaps you were operating the laser as part of U.S. Air Force operations or on behalf of the Air Force. PC 247.5 has one specific exclusion: "This section does not apply to the conduct of laser development activity by or on behalf of the United States Armed Forces." You cannot be convicted of a crime if your actions qualify for this exclusion.
Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce the charges to a lesser offense or even a case b dismissal. Maybe we can arrange early in the case to avoid the formal filing of charges in the first place, called a “DA reject.” Eisner Gorin LLP can be reached for an initial case review by phone or through the contact form.