Some people use laser pointers to highlight key facts and figures in presentations, while others use them to commit federal crimes. Last Tuesday, the FBI arrested 25-year-old Gabriel Soza Ruedas Jr. of Austin, Texas for allegedly aiming a laser pointer at an Austin Police Department helicopter.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a press release, saying Ruedas Jr. intentionally aimed a laser pointer at an Austin Police helicopter on February 15, 2014 while it was attempting to land at the local airport. Thankfully, no one was harmed during the laser-pointing incident, but it still placed the lives of dozens of people at risk.
When Austin police on board the helicopter reported the incident, a coordinated federal investigation was launched. After a 3-month-long joint investigation by the Austin Police Department, the FBI and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, investigators felt like they had enough evidence to merit a guilty verdict in trial, at which point an arrest warrant was issued for Ruedas Jr. and he was taken into custody.
According to a 2012 reform act signed into law by President Obama, it is a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at any aircraft, including helicopters. Laser pointers create powerful, concentrated beams of light that can travel for tens of thousands of feet. When aimed at the direction of an aircraft pilot, it can blind and/or disorient them, placing the lives of everyone on board at risk.
To put this problem into perspective, Cyrus Fariva, a writer for Ars Technica, reports that between 2005 and 2013, there were 17,725 incidents of laser pointers aimed at aircraft. What’s even more alarming is that only 134 arrests were made, which translates into a 0.75% conviction rate. It’s often a losing battle for authorities to find, and convict, perpetrators of this crime due to lack of evidence. However, this most recent case involving Ruedas Jr. confirms that not everyone gets away with this crime.
“Shining a laser at aircraft can temporarily blind a pilot which could result in the loss of aircraft control and human life. This case should serve as a warning to others who engage in this dangerous criminal activity. The FBI will continue to investigate and pursue prosecution of offenders who threaten aviation safety,” said FBI special agent Christopher Combs in a recent statement following the incident.
If convicted, Ruedas Jr. faces a maximum 5-year sentence in federal prison along with a possible $250,000 fine.