September 13, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, several days ago our grandson and three of his college fraternity brothers were almost arrested for doing something which all of us now realize was completely stupid and dangerous.”
“It had nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, or motor vehicles, and took place in the late evening. The boys had no weapons, were not gambling, fighting, nor were they arguing with anyone,” began an e-mail from “Clarence, a long-time reader in Northern California.”
His e-mail continued:
“In fact, through part of this incident, they seemed to be having a really good time. I was completely unaware of what was going on outside in our front yard. The boys were fooling around with small, classroom type laser pointers and a very bright spotlight, which they were aiming at a Sheriff’s helicopter patrolling a few miles from where we live.”
“My wife and I were watching the 11 o’clock news, when all of a sudden we heard this incredible roar of something in the sky directly overhead, coming closer and closer, and then our entire house, front and rear yards, was brilliantly lit up. It was like a scene from a science fiction movie.”
“We both ran out the front door to where the boys were, to see them huddled together, staring up at this brilliant white light. It was from the Sheriff’s helicopter directly overhead! The noise was deafening, and that says something as we are in our 70’s and our hearing isn’t that great to begin with!”
“Then, within seconds, two Sheriff’s cars came around the corner and right into our driveway. What happened next made everything clear to me,” Clarence wrote.
Scared college kids
So, what was going on here? What were the young men doing that was so bad? How could simply shining lights at a helicopter get someone arrested?
The answer to that question was immediately provided by the Sheriff’s Sergeant.
“Someone at this location has been aiming lasers and a very bright light at our helicopter. It is a violation of Federal law and the California Penal Code to shine a laser at an aircraft. Did you know that? This can be a felony. What the heck are you guys doing?” the Deputy asked the visibly shaken four young men.
It was at this point that I phoned my reader. Both he and his grandson were at home, and eager to talk. At least Clarence was. His grandson, Ted, was embarrassed.
Just trying to see the pretty helicopter
My reader is 73 years of age and was terribly upset by what had happened, fearful that his grandson and friends would be arrested. I asked Ted how he and his frat brothers explained themselves to the law enforcement officers.
“My grandfather always told me to tell the truth, and that is what I did. Each of us had one of those small, classroom-type red laser pointers, and I had a rechargeable 200,000 Candlepower spotlight in the trunk of my car for emergency purposes. We also had a pair of binoculars.”
“A pair of binoculars? Did I hear you correctly,” I asked? Indeed, I had.
“We were trying to see if we could actually hit the body of the helicopter with our lights. One of us would aim the spotlight or the laser pointers at what we assumed to be the rear section of the helicopter, and the others would take turns using the binoculars. We tried to aim toward the rear of the helicopter, because we didn’t want to interfere with the pilot’s vision. But we quickly discovered that it is difficult to train a light on a fast-moving helicopter,” Ted explained.
“We were only trying to see the actual body of the chopper, not disturb the pilot’s sight. But all we wound up doing was shining the lights every-which-way,” he added.
Luckiest college students on the planet
What next happened in my opinion as both a legal affairs writer and former Deputy District Attorney, revealed an incredibly high degree of professionalism by these Sheriff’s Deputies.
“They asked the boys to show them what they were using. Each handed over a small, red, laser pointer and the spotlight. The Deputies took them into their vehicle for a closer examination. After what seemed a long time, the pointers and spotlight were handed back to the students, and then something completely unexpected occurred.”
“The helicopter — which had flown away — returned, landing across the street from where we live, which, as you probably guessed, is an agricultural area with lots of open spaces. Both pilots got out, shook hands with their law enforcement colleagues. They introduced themselves to my grandson and his three friends, and then explained why their “prank” was so dangerous.”
“Lasers — especially green lasers above 3 milliwatts — are incredibly dangerous to all pilots, but especially to low flying helicopter pilots. What starts out as a tiny green dot a few feet from the laser, widens to fill the cockpit with a blinding light. We call that Temporary Flash-Blindness. It’s like getting a camera flash in your eyes,” one of the pilots explained.
“There have been several instances of pilots becoming disoriented or fearing they were being targeted with a laser weapon. It is a prank which has landed people in jail and when criminal intent is present, has sent them to prison for many years, it is so dangerous,” he told the boys.
“But, as your lasers are red and well under one milliwatt — and it was clear you did not intend to do harm — consider this to be a stern warning not to do it again,” one of the pilots told the boys.
Clarence added that there was something a bit “humorous and humbling” about the entire incident.
“If you will pardon my seeing a bit of humor in what happened, it reminded me of a scene from the Wizard of Oz, where the wizard bellows ‘I am Oz, the great and powerful,’ while Dorothy, the Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman, are all trembling with fear.”
Those deputy sheriffs could easily have seen things in a whole different light.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.