ST. LOUIS — Justin Stouder was playing with a new laser pointer and, curious to see how far it would reach, pointed it at a passing helicopter.
The impulsive decision temporarily blinded the pilot and cost Stouder a night in jail and a year's probation. At a news conference Monday at FBI headquarters in St. Louis, officials said it could have been much worse.
"If you've ever had another driver shine high beams on you at night, you know how blinding that can be when you're driving," said Dennis Baker, the FBI agent in charge of the St. Louis office. "The lasers are even more intense for pilots."
Lasers pointed at aircraft are a growing problem. The Federal Aviation Administration said that in 2005, there were fewer than 300 incidents. Last year, 2,836 were reported. In some cases, pilots had to relinquish control of an aircraft to a co-pilot because of temporary vision loss.
Stouder, 26, and a friend were in the front yard of Stouder's O'Fallon home using a legal, mid-sized laser pointer on April 27, 2010, when the helicopter co-piloted by St. Louis officer Doug Reinholz passed overhead.
"People don't realize by the time the laser hits us, the beam of light has grown. It's no longer a pinpoint," Reinholz said. "It lit the aircraft up like it was right underneath us."
Reinholz was able to turn away from the blinding light. He eventually turned a spotlight on Stouder's home and contacted police on the ground. Stouder was arrested and spent part of the night in jail.
Stouder eventually agreed to a "pre-trial diversion," a year of probation and direct supervision that allowed him to avoid a criminal record. Stouder, a lawn care worker and college student, said the incident cost him two job opportunities and was a hard lesson.
"It started off just admiring the laser and shining it, seeing how far it would go," Stouder said after apologizing to Reinholz. "It's not something small. It could cause harm, damage and possibly death."
Baker said he was not aware of any crashes caused by laser pointers but said a concern is what would happen if a laser was aimed at a pilot on approach to an airport. He said the laser can force pilots to divert a mission, possibly delaying the flight of a person to a hospital or interfering with police in pursuit of a crime.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Meyer said Stouder was not prosecuted or fined in part because his intent was not malicious. Dozens of people have been arrested around the country under state and local laws. Most were fined, but at least one California man received a prison term.
Meyer said that for now, violators can be charged in federal court with interfering with a flight or a flight crew. A new bill before the Senate would specifically make it a crime to point lasers at aircraft. In June, the FAA announced that violators could face fines of up to $11,000 per incident.
States are also taking action. Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill making it a misdemeanor to aim lasers at planes, punishable by up to a year in jail.