Christmas laser light projectors have become extremely popular outdoor décorations in recent years. They are very easy to install and take down, replacing hours spent attaching string lights on eaves and gutters. They are vibrant, dazzling and even customizable as the laser pattern can be changed. While impressive and seemingly harmless, homeowners must be aware of their legal responsibilities when using these items.
Lasers can actually be very dangerous and distracting to pilots operating aircraft. Since a laser focuses intense light on a very tight spot, a beam that makes contact with the eye can be the equivalent of staring into a bright spotlight or even at the sun. This runs the risk of causing eye damage to the pilot which can affect the ability to land the plane and put lives at risk. As a result, federal and state law criminalizes the pointing of lasers at aircraft. While the vast majority of homeowners point their laser light projectors upon their house, there is the chance that some of the beams can project into space and affect objects in the air.
KNOWINGLY AIM LASER AT AIRCRAFT (FEDERAL LAW)
- “Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined [up to $250,000.00] or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. §39A(a).
- “As used in this section, the term “laser pointer” means any device designed or used to amplify electromagnetic radiation by stimulated emission that emits a beam designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object.” 18 U.S.C. §39A(b).
- This section does not prohibit aiming a beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, or the flight path of such an aircraft, by—
- “[A]n authorized individual in the conduct of research and development or flight test operations conducted by an aircraft manufacturer, the Federal Aviation Administration, or any other person authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct such research and development or flight test operations.” 18 U.S.C. §39A(c)(1).
- “[M]embers or elements of the Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security acting in an official capacity for the purpose of research, development, operations, testing, or training.” 18 U.S.C. §39A(c)(2).
- “[B]y an individual using a laser emergency signaling device to send an emergency distress signal.” 18 U.S.C. §39A(c)(3).
KNOWINGLY CAUSING DAMAGE OR DEATH TO AIRCRAFT (FEDERAL LAW)
- Whoever willfully—
- “[S]ets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce;” 18 U.S.C. §32(a)(1).
- “[I]nterferes with or disables, with intent to endanger the safety of any person or with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life, anyone engaged in the authorized operation of such aircraft or any air navigation facility aiding in the navigation of any such aircraft;” 18 U.S.C. §32(a)(5).
- “[P]erforms an act of violence against or incapacitates any individual on any such aircraft, if such act of violence or incapacitation is likely to endanger the safety of such aircraft; or…” 18 U.S.C. §32(a)(6).
- attempts or conspires to do anything prohibited under [these paragraphs];” 18 U.S.C. §32(a)(8).
- shall be fined [up to $250,000.00] or imprisoned not more than twenty years or both.
INTENTIONALLY AIMING DIRECTED ENERGY BEAM AT AIRCRAFT (MICHIGAN LAW)
- “A person shall not intentionally aim a beam of directed energy emitted from a directed energy device at an aircraft or into the path of an aircraft or a moving train.” MCL 750.43a(1).
- “A person who violates this section is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 5 years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both.” MCL 750.43a(2).
- “This section does not apply to any of the following:”
- “An authorized individual in the conduct of research and development or flight test operations conducted by an aircraft manufacturer, the Federal Aviation Administration, or any other person authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct research and development or flight test operations.” MCL 750.43a(3)(a).
- “Members of the United States Department of Defense or the United States Department of Homeland Security acting in an official capacity for the purpose of research, development, operations, testing, or training.” MCL 750.43a(3)(b).
- “A person using a laser emergency signaling device to send an emergency distress signal.” MCL 750.43a(3)(c).
Both federal and state laws require that the actor “knowingly” or “intentionally” point the laser beam at an aircraft to trigger criminal liability. The prosecutor cannot secure a conviction if the offense was only done recklessly, negligently or accidentally. Of course, whether an act is intentional or not depends on the individual facts and circumstances of each case. The government has many resources, but they do not have mind readers. To decide if a crime was committed, police and prosecutors will consider the size of the laser display, the purpose of the display and its consistency with the time of year, the general direction that the lasers are pointed, and the proximity to airports and military bases.
Christmas laser light projectors are a great addition to any lawn display, but homeowners need to use these laser beams consistently with these statutes to avoid legal problems and protect the public. If you do run afoul of the law and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.
Have a safe and wonderful holiday season!