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Police helicopter vs. man with laser

Up in the air!

It's a helicopter.

It's a laser.

It's a ... felony?

It is when you point a laser at a helicopter in flight, contend Fairfax County Police and the commonwealth's attorney's office, who say Raymond Jeffrey Poli and his green laser light jeopardized a police crew's safety one dark and foggy Saturday morning.

A grand jury is expected to decide whether Poli should stand trial for the incident. His case is unusual -- but not the rarity it initially may seem.

Poli's attorney says his client was a guy who wondered why a helicopter kept passing over his house on Blue Jasmine Court at 5:15 a.m. on Feb. 27. When Poli's conventional flashlight couldn't pierce the fog to make out the helicopter's markings, Poli pulled out a laser that belonged to his son to take a look, said Poli's defense attorney, Rodney Leffler.

Fairfax police spokesmen said they could not discuss the case and a prosecutor in the case did not return phone messages, But in an interview, Leffler said his client "had no idea why the aircraft was up there at that hour and brought out the light trying to see who it belonged to."

The Fairfax officers in the helicopter were searching for a suspect in an unrelated case.

As laid out in a preliminary hearing on June 23, police video and audio equipment captured the burst of white light and then the laser beam that cut across their vision as they scoured the ground. To enhance their sight in darkness, the police crew wore night vision goggles (think the goggles that create those shadowy green video images in war footage).

Other pilots from military to medevac teams -- and an FAA study -- have found that bright external lights can cause a flare in the goggles, temporarily impairing sight.

By shining a laser on the helicopter, Fairfax police argue, Poli put them at risk and interfered with their search, both punishable as a felony under a section of Virginia state law that carries a potential prison sentence and fine. The flight team worked with patrol officers on the ground to track the source of the laser and arrested Poli, 47, at his home in Springfield.

Criminal cases over lasers and aircraft have followed increased interest by federal aviation experts in the safety threats lasers pose.

Pilots told the Federal Aviation Administration of about 1,476 incidents of lasers flashed into their aircraft during 2009, with 20 of those in Virginia and 13 in Maryland, federal records show. The number has risen steadily in the past five years from the 283 reported to the FAA nationwide in 2005 (with 3 three in Virginia and two in Maryland).

The National Transportation Safety Board also has taken an interest in the laser problem, ramping up its reviews quickly in the wake of a 1995 incident that left a a Southwest Airlines first officer temporarily blinded by light from an outdoor laser show as he was lifting off from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

The first officer was disoriented for several minutes and handed off the flight to the captain, the NTSB found.

A year later, the pilot of a Skywest Airlines flight coming into Los Angeles Airport was exposed to a laser light in his right eye and had to relinquish control of the final approach and landing to his co-pilot when the pilot's eye began burning and tearing. The laser had come from an area near a college campus and tests confirmed later that the pilot had flash burns to his cornea, an NTSB report concluded.

The NTSB soon after urged the FAA to research laser exposure limits for pilots, which led to several studies including one on the effects of laser strikes on pilots during final approach.

(The interest in lasers and aircraft isn't confined to the U.S., and in fact sounds a little snappier when, say, the Australians take up the issue and go after "laser pests," as the locals dubbed them.)

As ever-cheaper lasers have made their way into ever more hands, federal and local prosecutors have picked up the pace of criminal cases.

In January of 2005, the then-federal prosecutor for New Jersey drew national attention when he used the Patriot Act, which was passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to charge a Parsippany, N.J., man with flashing a laser at a charter Cessna carrying six passengers as it flew into Teterboro Airport. The anti-terrorism measure included a provision about deliberately interfering with the pilot of an airplane or "mass transportation vehicle" with reckless disregard for human safety.

The laser case was brought in under that legal umbrella -- and eventually drew criticism to the prosecutor for having using a legal tool crafted for punishing terrorist acts to pursue laser wielder David Banach. Banach pleaded guilty to interference with the pilot and in 2006 was given two years probation.

In April of 2009, Dana Christian Welch earned notoriety as the first defendant in the country convicted by a jury of interfering with pilots by shooting lasers at them, a distinction noted by the federal prosecutors in Los Angeles who won the verdict.

Welch, then 37, of Orange County, shined a hand-held laser at two Boeing jets coming in for landings in 2008 at John Wayne Airport. One was a United Airlines flight with more than 180 onboard and the other was an Alaska Airlines flight carrying more than 80. Welch was acquitted of charges he also aimed the laser at a Delta Airlines aircraft and the police helicopter brought in to investigate.

Welch was sentenced in November to 30 months in federal prison.

Others have been convicted since then, including Clint Jason Brenner, a 36-year-old convicted in May in Arizona on state charges that he trained a laser on a police helicopter searching in Prescott, Ariz., for a robbery suspect believed to be atop a store roof.

The roof was within hitting distance of Brenner, who was watching the air search, and trained his green laser on the helicopter's windshield, the jurors found. Brenner apologized at the end of his trial, in which news accounts say, his attorney acknowledged an "immature act" in which "alcohol consumption" may have played a part in what the sentencing judge ultimately deemed "foolishness."

Brenner received two years in prison.

--Mary Pat Flaherty,/em>

By Mary Pat Flaherty  |  July 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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That helicopter is sooooo damn annoying. Its like they are on a mission to wake up every single Fairfax resident. Saturday morning at 5:15 am? I'm sure the burglars in low crime Fairfax County where the poor residents earn an meek $92,000 per family.

The police up in the air are burning money that could go to teachers salaries! They need to be up in the air constantly to justify the need for their helicopter (of which they require at least seven full time staff for it to operate).

I can understand the need for the helicopter for medical emergencies, but I think we can all safely say that 5:15 am on Saturday isn't exactly a time when a helicopter is needed immediately.

Fairfax County could learn a thing or two from every other jurisdiction in the country that doesn't have a helicopter flying around at 5:15 am without any reason.

I really really really hope this guy gets off. His excuse is poor (of course, the dude got woken up obviously), but I think the last thing we need to spend tax dollars on is busting the guy with a pen light because the police are soooo threatened. boohoo!

Posted by: slydell | July 1, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Really fairfax? What a PR disaster for the police, getting their panties all wadded up.

Posted by: 123cartoon | July 1, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, in the history of the world, no life threatening emergency has ever taken place at 5:15 am on a Saturday. Everyone knows that!

Posted by: Mike40 | July 1, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

They should write it off as incidental just like they wrote off one of their officers accidentally shooting Sal Culosi.

Posted by: dtysko | July 1, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

This is really stupid why you want to point laser beam at an aircraft. This could blind the pilot and kill all occupants of the aircraft. They should have fired at the laser pointer, who knows he could have been trying to keep them from chasing his buddy bad guys. There was a near crash in 2005 where landing aircraft almost missed runway. They need to set example or else all knitwits will be pointing laser beam and flights taking off etc around airports.

Posted by: Jim110 | July 1, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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