New Law Helps U.S. Coast Guard Crack Down on Laser Strikes

coast guard
Courtesy Potente Laser

Published Jan 22, 2021 6:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021 includes a little-noticed provision that will improve waterway safety: it is now a felony crime to aim a laser pointer at any vessel operating on the navigable waters of the United States. 

While there are already laws on the books that prohibit aiming laser pointers at aircraft - an all-too-common and dangerous act of hooliganism - this is the first time that there is a statute aimed specifically at those who decide to take aim at vessels, like Coast Guard patrol boats, ferries, merchant ships and small watercraft. 

High-powered laser pointers are far different from the pen-sized presentation aids found in classrooms and conference meetings. For a few hundred dollars, any member of the public can buy a handheld Class IV laser that can cause eye damage at a range of hundreds of feet or flash blindness at up to half a mile away. On the water, loss of sight could raise the risk of a marine casualty. 

Offenders who target a Coast Guard vessel with a laser pointer and harm an officer can receive up to $25,000 in civil fines, and criminal penalties can include up to 25 years imprisonment, according to CGIS. 

Laser pointer incidents are common for the U.S. Coast Guard, both for its surface and aviation assets. Unidentified offenders recently pointed a laser at Coast Guard rescue crews near Singer Island, Florida on three occasions. Last week, a boat crew out of Station Portland, Oregon was targeted while under way on the Willamette River, forcing the crew to stop, conduct a health check and head back to base.  

"Laser incidents are incredibly dangerous, put the safety of our boatcrews in jeopardy and degrade our ability to navigate and respond to emergencies," said Lt. Cmdr. Colin Fogarty, enforcement chief, Sector Columbia River. "We ask the public to understand the dangers associated with playing with lasers and how they disrupt our crews from responding to mariners in distress.

Identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators can be challenging, and CGIS has asked for the public's help. Tips about laser strike incidents and other crimes may be filed at https://www.p3tips.com/tipform.aspx?ID=878#