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The Courts Government Toys United States News

Laser Painting Could Lead to 25-Year Prison Term 1615

lowy writes "According to this USA Today article, a New Jersey man was charged under federal anti-terrorism laws with shining a laser beam at a jet flying over his home. The Feds arrested him after he flashed a police helicopter searching for the source of the beam. He now faces up to 25 years in prison under Patriot Act charges." It seems to be happening around the country, as our earlier post makes clear.
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Laser Painting Could Lead to 25-Year Prison Term

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  • Only 25 years? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Skyshadow ( 508 ) * on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:04PM (#11267172) Homepage
    So trying to blind pilots in order to cause their aircraft to crash will only net you 25 years?

    Am I the only one here who thinks that's letting them off kind of easy? I mean, if I were to shoot a SAM at an airliner and get caught, I think I'd probably be looking at more than 25 years even if it missed. In both cases, the intention and the potential outcome are the same...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:11PM (#11267313)
    Isn't that about what you'd get if you used a laser to burn pirated CDs? I'm sure that bringing down a jet is very nearly as bad.
  • Re:25 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by I8TheWorm ( 645702 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:13PM (#11267350) Journal
    The case hasn't even appeared in court. It's just that this action seems to fall under the Patriot Act, according to the prosecutors. The beauty of our judicial system (though not infallible) is that he gets his day in court. If the judge is a reasonable person, this man will either be acquited or get probation to be made an example of.
  • by jabber01 ( 225154 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:15PM (#11267384)
    There is precedent, albeit tenuous, that the only purpose of certain kinds of equipment, or even logic (DeCSS anyone), is to do unlawful and criminal things with it.

    Now, I'll grant that there are many reasons for owning laser pointers. Specifically, if you have a cat, it is a patented means of delivering exercise to the feline.

    However... With datamining, if you buy diesel fuel, fertilizer, and now a laser pointer, you can end up on a watch list which you could avoid if you did not buy a cat toy.
  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by saider ( 177166 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:17PM (#11267418)
    Considering how windshields on airplanes are on the top of the plane, shining lasers at them probably won't blind them, and they won't crash

    Think about this. If the pilot can see the ground from the cockpit (and they can), then someone on the ground can shine a laser in their eye. Your assumption is that the plane was directly overhead. The plane was on approach to a nearby airport and was at very low altitude. One can easily see inside the cockpit from various angles around the plane.

    This will likely be settled and the guy will receive minimal if any jail time. But the gov't has to show that it is addressing this issue.

  • by NoData ( 9132 ) < minus author> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:18PM (#11267438)
    I have one of those cool ThinkGeek green laser pointers [] and it was kind of fun (and amusing for the kids) to take it out on a cloudy or foggy day and look at the neat laser beam. Even the ThinkGeek description advertises its use for skypointing while stargazing, which works even in the clear in very dark conditions. Now I'm scared to do either. God I love these times we live in.
  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by artemis67 ( 93453 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:35PM (#11267761)
    The reason why he is so totally screwed is that the feds have to make an example of SOMEBODY. When lasers are selling for $100 on eBay, they are going to be ubiquitous, and until someone is made an example of, a lot of the people who buy them are going to aim them at airplanes for snorts and giggles, thinking that it's not a big deal. The government has to show them that YES, IT IS A BIG DEAL.

    After all, how could something so simple as shining a beam on an airplane be a criminal act? But if this guy gets 25 years, it will send one hell of a shockwave through society and most people will get the message.

    I imagine that even the prosecutors feel sorry for this guy, just some knucklehead who was goofing around with his kid, completely ignorant of how this would be interpreted. But they can't just let it go.
  • Re:25 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RealAlaskan ( 576404 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:36PM (#11267774) Homepage Journal
    Seems to me you have to try pretty hard to laser an airplane cockpit from the ground.

    I think you'd have to try pretty hard to do it on purpose, but if you wave a laser around from the right spot on the ground (maybe a mile or two off the approach to a big airport?), I think you'd have to try pretty hard to not do it by accident.

    I don't think that anyone has suggested that these laser-pointer-illuminations have the potential to do physical harm, and we've let little kids buy them and play with them for years now. If these laser pointers were likely to do any harm, we would already be seeing many thousands of blind kids.

    My take on this is that a Federal prosecutor in New Jersey needs to get a life.

  • Re:25 years? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Paco04101 ( 842493 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:47PM (#11267970)
    Hmm you see no difference between aiming a rocket launcher at an aircraft vs. aiming a laser ? Besides, is this how fragile airplanes are now, that a laser pointer can bring them down ?? And to think all this time terrorists have been wasting their money on aquiring explosives.
  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 01dbs ( 696498 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:48PM (#11267990)
    > But they're talking now about outlawing lasers to the general public?

    A scientific colleague of mine told me a story from when he was in grad school that went something like this. For some reason, some general legislative stupidity, the state of Wisconsin considered passing a law banning all devices that emitted electromagnetic radiation. Before the law passed, my colleague's advisor, a physics professor of some repute, was asked to testify at a hearing about the law.

    He said to the legislators on the panel, "I'm about to remove from my pocket a device that emits a great deal of electromagnetic radiation, switch it on, and point it at you." The panel was, of course, terrified. He then took out a flashlight. Needless to say, the law didn't pass.

    I suspect this laser business will be somewhat similar. Could a laser conceivably be a public danger? Yes. So could hammers, matches, fertilizer, etc. I seriously doubt there's going to be a laser ban.
  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by danheskett ( 178529 ) <danheskett&gmail,com> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:50PM (#11268012)
    It does make sense.

    15 miles away and 8000 feet means that the plane needs to drop about 1000 feet per minute for each minute that the plane is in the air. Touch down speed for a big plane like that is probably in the 120-200 mph range. That means the 15 mile approach would take 7 1/2 minutes. That's not al ot of time!

    Each second of that last 7 1/2 minutes before touch down the plane has to drop at least 15 feet! Each second!

    This is a very dangerous time of the flight. For one or both pilots to be blinded at this juncture - or even imparied slighly - could lead to catrosphe. Imagine the pilot is off just slightly in his approach. The plane drop 16 feet per second, instead of his normal plane of 15 feet per second. That would mean the plane would be 450 feet below sea level when it "gets" to the runway (aka, it crashes well before the runway).

    Those 8000 feet and 15 miles numbers make perfect sense for a jumbo on approach.
  • by Brandybuck ( 704397 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @04:56PM (#11268112) Homepage Journal
    I can also buy a gun for $100. Does that give me the right to shoot it into the cockpit of a 747 or police helicopter?
  • by Tristandh ( 723519 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:04PM (#11268259)
    From the article:
    She said her client was playing with his young daughter, using the laser's narrow green beam to point at stars and illuminating trees and neighbor's houses.

    And shamelessly lifted from another post in this discussion, this [] link states that

    Red laser pointers have grown cheap and ubiquitous, but unfortunately, they are not very effective as sky pointers. In contrast, green laser pointers are very effective because of the eye's greater sensitivity to the 532 nanometer green light. Under dark sky conditions, the beam from a 5 milliwatt green laser pointer creates a dramatic impression, and the beam apparently extends for more than a kilometer.

    which supports the former statement.
    In short, the guy was pointing out stars to his daughter, he NEVER intended to point it at an airliner (I'd like to see someone with a handheld laser pinpointing an airliner several thousands of meter up). So calling it "assault" is just ridiculous. Picking out this guy also is: supposing the linked site sold any number of units, this means that many people in the US are doing exactly the same, they just didn't hit the one in chance of flashing an airliner miles away AND having the beam deflected into a pilot's eyes. Conclusion: there has been much media attention about lasers hitting an airplane recently so a scapegoat had to be found. He's just one unlucky bastard. Not a criminal. And definately not a terrorist. Why do I hint at scapegoating?

    "We need to send a clear message to the public that there is no harmless mischief when it comes to airplanes,"

    Justice Department officials said they do not suspect terrorism in any of the cases, but said Banach's arrest shows how seriously they take the matter.

    Also, I really disliked this little piece of information:

    After the agent switched it on, Banach warned him "not to shine the laser in his eyes because it could blind him," the court documents say.

    Let me just say "well DUH!" A 5mW laser (a bit more than the presentation-purpose lasers) are ubiquitous and one shouldn't look straight into those from a few cm away either. This just makes it blatantly obvious this is pure sensationalist "journalism" about a gross injustice, namely picking out one individual, ruining his life, to make a public impression.

    ps. If this laser situation should prove potentially dangerous, something SHOULD be done, agreed, but this is just a perversion of justice.
  • Patriot? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geoff lane ( 93738 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:18PM (#11268481)
    Has this daft law ever been used to deal with an actual, real, evil, acid-spitting terrorist? Ever?
  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PenguiN42 ( 86863 ) <taylork.alum@mit@edu> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:22PM (#11268540) Journal
    Illegal combatants are designated as such because...

    The problem is how to distinguish between "illegal combatants" performing acts of war, and foreign nationals performing criminal acts.

    The bush administration is providing very shaky criteria with which to do this distinguishing -- a perpetual state of "war" on terrorism that may never terminate, legislation that redefines hoards of previously criminal acts as acts of "terrorism," etc. It's actually rather scary -- the scope of what constitutes an "enemy combatant" grows larger and larger without boundaries. Your "fuck 'em, they're enemy combatants" attitude demonstrates a grave lack of thoughtfulness into this (which seems to be shared with the president).

  • Re:Only 25 years? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by kfg ( 145172 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:24PM (#11268570)
    I've been momentarily blinded by oncoming headlights.

    I have that experience daily. I've yet to see a car with headlasers though. The laser part makes a world of difference. There is no dispersion pattern for a laser. That's what makes it a laser. You have to look directly into the cohesive beam of a laser to see it at all. That's why it makes a red dot instead of a red splash, like car tail lights do. A person on the other side of the street from you can only see the laser at all if that tiny red dot happens to pass directly over his retina.

    Now, take that car and toss it at a couple hundred miles an hour and several hundred feet over your head.

    Try to make that little red dot pass directly over the retina of the driver. For that matter, try to make it hit the driver at all.

    Try somthing easier, try to put out your own cat's eye with your laser pointer. You'll certainly be able to distract her, for hours on end. You'll get bored before she does.

    Her eyes will be perfectly safe. You will not be able to even momentarily blind her.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:36PM (#11268768)
    Maybe this is just a stupid question; but, the plane is moving at 150 mph, the glass in a cockpit sits up high on the nose (granted, the pilots can see straight down, but not easily), the glass is crowded by equipment anyways, the pilots aren't sitting with thier faces pressed to the window; how in the world is it possible to put a laser pointer right in someone's eye, so well in fact as to cause vision problems? There is something that is really not adding up here.
  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:37PM (#11268779)
    Now make the grape move at 600 miles per hour.

    If its coming more or less directly towards you, the apparent velocity goes waay down. And aircraft on approach are not going 600. More like 250.

    You don't have to completley 'blind' them, as in burn out their retinas, to be very, very hazardous.
    You can try this yourself. Remove the brakes from your car. Drive at high speed, at night, on a crowded road.(Crowded, to simulate the workload of a pilot on approach). Have a friend shine a high power laser into your eyes for a few seconds. (Said friend will probably want to be on an overpass, rather than in the car with you.)
    If you live, repeat the exercise a few more times.

  • by CharonX ( 522492 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:39PM (#11268814) Journal
    Well, guess this is another victory for the terrorists then.
    Everytime citicens lose a bit of their freedom, those who oppose this freedom win. 9/11 till now was a string of victories for the terrorists, even if the Government wants you to believe otherwise.
    How much liberty and peronal freedom have you lost due to "laws against terror"?
    A sad day for the USA.
  • by maynard ( 3337 ) <> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @05:57PM (#11269094) Journal
    I suggest folks be more careful getting scientific facts from sources which are obviously slanted either way -- left or right -- on the political spectrum, as such sites always have their own agendas to advance.

    I don't think /. cited USAToday as a source of scientific fact, either (well, actually, the /. editor forgot to cite anything this time - but I digress). The original Salon article, from a column titled "Ask The Pilot", was - duh - written by a professional airline pilot. The original column debunked the notion of terrorists using lasers to down commercial airline jets. The physicist replied in affirmation to the pilot-author with his own points, in a letter to the editor. I see no assertions of "scientific fact", simply informed opinion offered to an audience. Read, or not, as you see fit.

    I read no political bias in either the original article or the letter to the editor. You know, sometimes people offer statements without explicit political or partisan bias. Seriously!

    IOW: "It tastes not quite unlike tea!" - Arthur Dent


  • by Nkwe ( 604125 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @06:05PM (#11269207)
    I really wish such articles would give us the whole story. What is not really being made clear is if all the airplane incidents were done with cheap inexpensive laser pointers, or more expensive, more powerfull lasers.

    If the cheapo pointers that you can buy at Target for a few dollars are a risk then this really is a story. If you have spend several hundred dollars and buy from some sort of industrial supplier then it is not near as much of a story. I really wish such articles would give us the whole story. What is not really being made clear is if all the airplane incidents were done with cheap inexpensive laser pointers, or more expensive, more powerful lasers.

    If the cheapo pointers that you can buy at Target for a few dollars are a risk then this really is a story. If you have to spend several hundred dollars and buy from some sort of industrial supplier then it is not near as much of a story.

  • by jafac ( 1449 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @06:17PM (#11269355) Homepage
    I'm curious. Would you feel any different if he had blinded the pilot of the plane carrying your mother, thus causing it to crash into the ground, burn, and spread little bits of charred gristle that were formerly parts of your mother over an area of about 5 square miles?

    Or maybe you'd feel differently if you were a professional pilot, blinded by the laser, landed successfully, but were never able to work again for the rest of your life?

    This was not a simple, harmless prank.
    Perhaps this calls for tighter regulation and licensing of more powerful lasers. (FCC? egad!). But let's at least start with protecting the public from this fucktard.
  • by fishbowl ( 7759 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @06:23PM (#11269440)
    "At this distance laser beam will widen to the point where the cross-section of the beam will be around 1 meter"

    Diffused into the laminated glass of the airplane cockpit, that would be just about right to obscure the visibility, wouldn't it?

    I think people are jumping to the conclusion of "retina damage", even though that's not really the claim being made. Obscuring the pilot's visibility is.
  • by twitter ( 104583 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @06:41PM (#11269703) Homepage Journal
    anyone who is flashing a laser pointer off at a POLICE HELICOPTER these days is obviously a complete idiot/jackass.

    Most people would agree with you, there, but what's not obvious is that the defendant is guilty. It's possible that what he says is true, the he and his daughter were out pointing a laser at trees and the sky when the FBI swooped in.

    There are two rights issues at stake here, libel and the banning of harmless devices. How would you like for your picture to be published by the USA Today online with a highly incriminating description? Fun, fun, fun online. Second, the whole thing may be a stupid stunt to get you to believe that laser pointers are dangerous and should be controlled like firearms. If distractions really were dangerous, there would be no billboards on public highways.

    It's garbage like this that shows how sorry mainstream media is. It's slanted and poorly researched but it has power due to self advertisement and a perception of proper editing. Understanding these issues is a critical part of your ability to defend your rights online.

  • Re:Huh? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FredThompson ( 183335 ) <> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @06:54PM (#11269850)
    You are so incredibly incorrect.

    Senator Joe McCarthy absolutely DID identify active Soviet agents.

    Among them was Alger Hiss.

    The American Left and other pro-Communist groups claimed it was a bs witchhunt with no substance. They knew that wasn't true but was an effective political claim given the public's lack of familiarity with intelligence matters.

    Read up on the Venona decrypts. I worked at the NSA when parts of these were declassified. I've seen some of the still classified documents. They're real, no question about it.

    There is no factual basis, whatsoever, for your claim.
  • Re:Huh? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jsdkl ( 48221 ) <rhenry@vistatheater . o rg> on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @07:42PM (#11270366)
    It was mostly Hoover and the FBI who identified the "Communist sympathizers". McCarthy asked them for information. When McCarthy started attacking the president (Eisenhower) and the US Army, in 1954, Hoover felt he would be threatened and stopped providing information.

    Joe just thought it was a good story and a way to get some attention. It WAS a circus, and a HUGE waste of resources.

    Also, McCarthy was the fourth member in the history of the US Senate to be censured, in December of 1954.
  • Re:Wrong (Score:2, Interesting)

    by winwar ( 114053 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @08:18PM (#11270715)
    "That was just with a hand held laser -- add a good mount and scope, it'll become trivial for any good rifleman. Remember, a good long distance rifleman can put a bullet in a 10" target at ranges of thousands of yards..."

    So why not just use a rifle? And we are not arresting people who point rifles at planes....

    "Fourth, you don't have to actually cause permanent blindness, just bounce enough light around the cockpit that the pilots cannot see well or focus consistently, and you have a good chance of crashing the plane."

    Well, it's good thing pilots don't have sunglasses :)

    Second, pilots land all the time in bad weather. If that doesn't qualify as an inability to see well or focus consistently, why aren't planes crashing left and right? Perhaps because it isn't that easy? And perhaps the fact that pilots don't HAVE to see where they are going to land (visual landings are nice but not required).

    Look the guy is an idiot. But he isn't a dangerous idiot. Not even close.

    Look, if a terrorist wants to bring a plane down, they will use a weapon. Not a toy that could be used as a weapon. Rifles and bombs are much more effective. Not to mention bringing a plane down by a laser pointer wouldn't inspire much terror (the point behind terrorism) because it would be virtually impossible to prove.

    Of course, exactly why he was charged under "anti-terrorism laws" when he wasn't suspected of terrorism (according to the article) boggles my mind. I imagine a good lawyer could/will have a field day with that....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @09:19PM (#11271256)
    The point is, would this man be considered a criminal without the patriot act? If yes, then why use the patriot act? If no, then something's wrong, either there's something missing from your country's criminal laws, or the man isn't actually guilty of anything. Either way, the problem is that the patriot act is being used as a catch-all law. That's scary because it basically lets the law enforcers make up their own laws, quite undemocratic.
  • by geekotourist ( 80163 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @09:36PM (#11271365) Journal
    There are some bad psychological cognitive dissonance feedback loops showing up here.

    If you're an anti-terrorism agent of some kind, and you're sent to investigate green lasers pointing at airplanes, which mode of thinking will make you feel better?

    • "Terrorism is dangerous and an act of terrorism could kill many people. My very important job is to prevent that, and I want to spend as much time as possible working on the important stuff. We've spent days tracking down a father who was showing his kid how nifty lasers can be. He's been embarrassed in the news for being an idiot and in for some community service, but, boy, I'm not going to get those hours back, what a waste of time." or
    • "...We've spent days tracking down a father who was showing his kid how nifty lasers can be. This has to be very important, else I wouldn't have spent all those hours working on this. I caught you and you are going down, mr. terrorist hiding as a techie guy. Oh, you're not a terrorist? Well, I caught you and you are going down, mr. example-to-terrorists hiding as a techie guy."
    Just in general people don't like admitting that they've put a lot of time and energy into something that didn't help their main mission. Very hard to get people to believe that old statement of economists: "Sunk costs are irrelevant." Much easier on the ego to think that "What I'm doing *must* be important and relevant, else why would I be doing it?"

    And so specifically if legislative bodies threw in DOS attacks, taking pictures of bridges, paying train tix with cash, or failing to know all the lyrics to 'God Bless the USA' into the PATRIOT Act, it *must* be because those are all related to terrorism, not because the FBI hornswoggled them into shoehorning 20 years worth of Xmas wish-lists into the Act during a month of extreme grief and emotion. Nope.

    And so if the TSA puts every every Carlos Garcia [], John Lewis [] and David Nelson [] on the Watch-List it *must* be worth doing, those repeated time-consuming checks on all 10 thousand of them each time they fly rather than doing the actual random checks that keep us safer [].

    If you're doing important anti-terrorism work then it just isn't possible that you'll get side-tracked. (which is why, had the PATRIOT Act existed in the 20th century, Tesla, the "October Sky" rocketeer, and pretty much every member of pyrotechnics guilds and model rocket clubs would have ended up with SSSS's on their plane tix and plenty of long, recorded talks with the local constabulary. Especially Tesla- scaring the neighbors like that, potentially taking down the grid, born in a foreign country. How'd he even get in? Thank goodness now we're keeping out all those foreign engineering grad students: maybe our science and economy will suffer, but we'll feel safer.)

  • by surprise_audit ( 575743 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @09:41PM (#11271399)
    So targetting lasers use visible light?? I always assumed they used something like infrared so the target didn't have a clue.
  • by Binary Boy ( 2407 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @11:02PM (#11271957)
    Did you not notice that the terrorists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 didn't exactly value the life they might have after committing the act? Why would any terrorist be discouraged by some yahoo getting sent up for something this lame? You realize someone willing to give their life to kill a bunch of innocents isn't going to think twice about a possibly stiff prison sentence, don't you?

    This guy was doing a stupid, possibly dangerous thing. It wasn't terrorism, however, and a multi-decade prison sentence isn't going to discourage actual terrorists (though it will hopefully discourage other idiots who don't have terroristic intent to pull similar crap - though I somehow doubt that too).
  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday January 05, 2005 @11:23PM (#11272074)
    like the British used to do with Australia
    It amazes me how many Americans know so little US history - you really must all think the early immigrants were all Amish chasing turkeys around or something, and not large numbers of transported criminals from England and France.
  • Enough already! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Thursday January 06, 2005 @12:39AM (#11272509)
    Note: I am NOT concerned about the $15 consumer lasers mentioned in the USA Today article but about the much stronger lab types, so please don't waste your time explaining to me why I shouldn't be at all worried about this.

    Okay. Thank-you for posting, "uberskyjock". I'll try not to waste your time.

    Your notes, while fascinating and informative, have little bearing on the fact that somebody has been arrested and threatened with 25 years imprisonment for posing a non-threat.

    Everybody is needlessly scared, the media is doing an irresponsible over-hype job and the authorities are over-reacting. --Yes, playing with lasers and airplanes is rationally arguable as being similar to joking about bombs in an airport, but that has little to do with what this is really all about. . . That is, the maintaining and increasing of the fear levels across the U.S. populace.

    It should be remembered that movements toward stricter laws are always rationally arguable, but the laws once made are nearly always irreversible.

    A little care is needed here.


Put no trust in cryptic comments.