An Allegiant airplane takes off from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport Friday, August 3, 2012 in Mesa. [Tribune file]

[Tribune file]

A House panel voted Thursday to increase the penalty for pointing lasers at aircraft in hopes it would lead to more prosecutions.

HB 2164 would make it a Class 5 felony, with a presumptive sentence of 18 months in prison, to knowingly or intentionally point a laser at an occupied aircraft. The penalty would go to 30 months if the act disables the pilot or causes serious physical injury to anyone onboard.

Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, told members of the Judiciary Committee he crafted the measure because of what he sees as a gap in the law that leaves prosecutors disinterested in pursuing offenders.

There is a law on the books making it a crime to point a laser at a police officer. That would cover anyone who points a laser at a police helicopter but not other aircraft.

Those who have been accused of pointing lasers at other aircraft have been charged with other offenses like disorderly conduct or endangerment.

But Orr said that, in both cases, prosecutors have shown little interest in spending time in pursuing misdemeanor charges. Orr said making the crime a felony would put the case in the hands of the county attorney who would pretty much have to file charges.

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin said his office has not had any problems pursuing misdemeanor charges when someone is caught. But Rankin said he supports the legislation, as do the mayor and council, “given the safety risks” and given the possibility that making the crime a felony, with a possible prison term, might have some deterrent effect.

Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said she backs the legislation and welcomes that opportunity to prosecute those who point lasers at aircraft. In fact, Mayer said she believes the penalty should be even stiffer than Orr is proposing.

“You could bring down an entire plane of people,” she said.

Orr, however, is actually looking at reducing the penalty when the legislation goes to the full House to a Class 6 felony.

The big difference, he said, is the possibility of prosecutors to have those cases designated as misdemeanors when appropriate. Orr said that means a youngster who has made a single mistake would not be stuck with a felony record.

Mayer, however, was unsympathetic, saying pointing a laser at an aircraft is a dangerous act. She said it's no different than if a youngster committed armed robbery.

The Federal Aviation Administration reports that for just Tucson there were 32 laser pointing incidents in 2012, the most recent figures available.

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