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Criminal Liability for Pointing Lasers at Police, Airplanes, or School Buses

Posted by Steve Karimi | Oct 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

Common sense suggests that it is not a good idea to point a laser at an airplane that is taking off or trying to land, given the potential to jeopardize the vision of the pilot, and therefore the health and safety of all the passengers as well. But did you know that it is also illegal to point a laser at a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, or a bus driver? All of these activities are prohibited by RCW 9A.49.020 and RCW 9A.49.030, which criminalize the “unlawful discharge of a laser.”

According to the FBI, shining a laser at an airplane is “not a harmless prank.” Because of the special glass found in airplane and helicopter cockpits that diffuses light, what appears at ground level to be a tiny dot of laser light rapidly expands in a cockpit and has the effect of producing a large flash that, in worst case scenarios, can temporarily blind a pilot. Unfortunately, these incidents occur with alarming frequency – the FAA suggests that it happens more than 10 times a day across the United States. For example, earlier this summer, an Alaska Airlines pilot approaching Sea-Tac Airport reported a laser light shining into the cockpit upon approach to the airport. Pointing lasers at certain public officials, like police officers or fire fighters, may also create the impression that the official is being targeted by a firearm.

The Revised Code of Washington also contains two subsections specifically prohibiting the “unlawful discharge of a laser”: RCW 9A.49.020 (first degree) and RCW 9A.49.030 (second degree). One is guilty of unlawful discharge of a laser in the first degree if he or she “knowingly and maliciously” discharges a laser at any of the following individuals while they are performing their official duties:

- A uniformed law enforcement officer (either in a manner such that the officer would reasonably believe he or she was being targeted with a laser sighting device, or in such a way that it impairs his or her ability to safely operate a vehicle);

- A pilot;

- A firefighter or other emergency responder;

- A transit operator or driver (public or private); or

- A school bus driver.

Unlawful discharge of a laser in the first degree can be charged as a class C felony, which is punishable by a prison term of up to five years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

One can be charged with unlawful discharge of a laser in the second degree if they knowingly and maliciously discharge a laser:

- At one of the individuals listed above, in a manner that causes a substantial risk of impairment or interruption of their official duties;

- At a non-official driver (e.g., someone not included in the list above), whose safety or operation of his or her vehicle is subsequently impaired; or

- At a person (not necessarily a driver), in order to intimidate or threaten that person.

Unlawful discharge of a laser in the second degree is a gross misdemeanor and adult offenders can be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and/or a fine of up to $5,000. If an offender charged with this crime is a juvenile who has not previously committed unlawful discharge of a laser in the first degree or second degree, his or her first infraction is a civil infraction that cannot be punished by more than a $100 fine. See RCW 9A.49.040.

Seattle and King County Criminal Defense Lawyer

As a former prosecutor for the state of Washington, attorney Steve Karimi will handle everything in your case with detail and zeal, including all steps necessary to build your defense, and to keep you out of jail. If you have been charged with a crime, do not hesitate to contact us at 206-621-8777.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.


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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.