2 accused of pointing laser at plane, helicopter

March 18, 2011 5:00:06 PM PDT
Police have charged two people for allegedly pointing a laser at a plane near Midway International Airport and a police helicopter.

Shania Smith, 22, and Elvin Slater, 24, face six misdemeanor counts of unlawful use of a weapon.

Police say around 8:30 p.m. Thursday, they were aiming a laser at Southwest Airlines flight 1583 as it approached Midway. The crew alerted officials on the ground. Then when a police chopper was deployed, police say the suspects pointed the laser at the helicopter. That helicopter helped lead officers on the ground to the suspects' location.

Investigators say they tracked down the alleged troublemakers at 60th and Stewart, near Slater's home, and found the laser in their car.

Slater's uncle says the laser pointing was not meant to cause harm.

"When you do that to an airplane, that's some idiot stuff. So he didn't really know what he was doing," said Melvin Mixon.

The use of high-powered laser pointers has become an increasing concern nationwide because it can temporarily blind a pilot.

"The way the light goes into the cockpit window, it refracts and it's very similar to an old fashioned light bulb going off in your face," said Charles Miller, Chicago FBI.

In all of last year, O'Hare reported 98 incidents in which pilots were flashed by lasers. That's the second highest total in the country. They come during take-off and more often landing when cockpit chores and the timing of them are critical.

"The last thing that a flight crew needs, the pilot and co-pilot needs, is a blinding light going off in their face while they're doing those critical stages of flight," said Miller.

"It's an innocent event to someone on the ground, but perhaps they do not understand how serious an effect it can have on the pilots in the aircraft," said Dennis Tajer, Allied Pilots Association.

Southwest flight 1583 - with 137 people aboard - landed safely Thursday night at Midway.

Meanwhile, travelers at Midway shared their anger about pranksters who point a laser in the sky.

"If it's a practical joke and there's been concern that it could pose problems, then I think that's thoughtless, reckless, don't appreciate it as a passenger," said Paige Barnett.

"It's something that endangers the lives of a lot of people. I've actually had that happen to me in a car where a laser hit me, and you just can't see," said Ray Myles, passenger

Slater has already asked for a jury trial. If it gets to that point and he's convicted, he could face up to one year in jail.

Quite often, federal charges can come into play in cases like this, but they typically require that prosecutors prove the person with the laser intended to cause harm. And that's not easy to prove.

Both the House and Senate have passed a measure that would make it a federal crime to simply point the laser at a commercial aircraft.

The judge set bond for Slater at $100,0000. He is in jail.