PALM HARBOR — The noise from a helicopter was keeping Beau Richard Wallace awake early Thursday, so the 18-year-old tried to shoo away the aircraft — with a high-powered laser pointer, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Unlike birds in a cornfield, the Sheriff's Office helicopter didn't respond to being painted with a laser beam by simply flying off.
Units were dispatched to Wallace's home on Brian Drive N, and he was arrested on a charge of misusing a laser lighting device.
According to Wallace's arrest report, he said he was "just being stupid." He said he had owned the laser pointer for only a week, and that it was "very powerful."
The helicopter was circling to support ground units searching for a robbery suspect when the pilot noticed a green laser beam flashing toward the aircraft, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
The pilot was able to identify the house where the beam was coming from and contacted deputies on the ground, who knocked on Wallace's front door.
Pasha said Wallace spontaneously admitted he was sorry after being confronted, and said he was just trying to sleep. The incident happened just after 1 a.m. Thursday. The 6-inch-long laser pointer was taken as evidence.
While not terribly common, Pasha said laser beams are pointed at deputies on the ground or in the air "every now and again."
A call to Wallace's home was not returned after he was released from the Pinellas County Jail on Thursday morning.
Wallace's charge is a felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Richard Anderson, an associate professor at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, said he has seen more cases of pilots being distracted by laser beams in recent years.
"It's certainly happening more often. A lot of people probably don't know they shouldn't do it," Anderson said. "A 15-year-old kid who's trying to entertain himself is probably not aware of the consequences that could happen."
Anderson said when a pilot is operating an aircraft, especially a helicopter at low altitudes, lasers like the type used by Wallace could cause the pilot to lose night vision or become distracted, or even cause retina damage or a crash.
"Pilots need to be aware of their situation and surroundings," he said. "If something takes your eyes off the issue, then it's a big deal."
The most common types of commercial laser pointers, the types with red beams that can be purchased for a few dollars at stores like Office Depot, generally are not powerful enough to reach aircraft at altitude. But the type Wallace was using was the stronger variety, which can shoot a stream of visible light for miles.
On Web sites like WickedLasers.com, such devices can be purchased for $99 up to $3,000 for high-end models like the Spyder III Pro, which was developed as an aiming device for machine guns.
Because lasers are often used to aim weapons, law enforcement officials could react to being targeted by a laser as if a weapon were being pointed at them.
A Web site that tracks laser pointer incidents, LaserPointerSafety.com, posted a story in October where a Reno, Nev., man was shot by officers after pointing a laser gun sight at them. In October, a 12-year-old boy in Holiday was charged with assault on a law enforcement officer after pointing a BB gun with a laser aiming device at a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
The federal government doesn't react kindly when lasers are pointed at aircraft either.
In 2005, a New Jersey man was arrested under the Patriot Act for shining the same type of laser at a commercial aircraft and helicopter flying over his home — and faced up to 25 years in prison after FBI agents showed up at his door.
The man was later sentenced to two years probation after a judge decided he had no terroristic intent.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.