LONGWOOD, Fla. - Until the night last June when Trevor Ragno and some friends were playing with a small laser pointer in his family's backyard hot tub, the 19-year-old had never been in trouble with the law.
[WEB EXTRA: Risks of pointing lasers at aircraft ]
But Ragno's decision to aim that 99-cent green laser at a Seminole County sheriff's helicopter changed his life, possibly forever.
"I could definitely tell it was a helicopter," said Ragno, who admits that he intentionally targeted the aircraft. "I didn't think it could do much, which was definitely very wrong."
Although Ragno's grandfather is a retired airline captain, and although Ragno once took flying lessons himself, he claims he had no idea pointing lasers at aircraft was a violation of state and federal laws.
Neither did Usman Tufail, who says he was using a laser pointer to play games with his dog in 2012 when the green beam pierced through the Spanish moss hanging in a tree.
"There wasn't any intention to point it at the helicopter," insists Tufail. "That was just something completely inadvertent. By mistake."
In each case, deputies recorded video the laser strikes on the helicopter's cameras. And within minutes of each incident, the two young men found themselves headed to jail.
"When they said it was a felony and put me in handcuffs, I was stunned," said Ragno.
Tufail was getting ready to start school at UCF when he suddenly had to put his future plans on hold.
"I was scared," he said.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which made it a federal crime to point lasers at aircraft. The practice has been illegal in Florida since 2002. Both federal and state laws carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Depending on the circumstances, violators may also face additional criminal charges for interfering with an aircraft.
Glenn Hansen was sentenced to six months in federal prison in 2012. According to prosecutors, the St. Cloud man pointed lasers at airplanes taking off from Orlando International Airport at least 23 times.
In March, a federal judge in California sentenced a longtime felon to 14 years in prison for repeatedly shining a laser at a police helicopter.
"It's like a flash of a camera," said Seminole County Sheriff Chief Pilot Steve Farris, who has been targeted by lasers numerous times. "It can be a distraction to the pilots, and it can cause temporary blindness."
Some pilots may mistake the red and green lasers for similar-colored lights on towers and other aircraft. The lasers can also damage expensive night-vision equipment.
"Sometimes it becomes a pattern where people are doing this regularly," said Farris, who frequently investigates laser strikes on planes taking off and landing at Orlando Sanford International Airport. "It seems to be quiet for a while, and then we'll get several cases."
The Federal Aviation Administration received more than 3700 laser complaints in 2014, with 355 of those occurring in Florida.
In September, Local 6's news helicopter, Sky 6, was repeatedly hit by a laser while hovering over a Hagerty High School football game in Oviedo. When a Seminole County's Sheriff's Office helicopter arrived to investigate, it was also illuminated by the green laser. Deputies later questioned two juveniles who had been seated in the bleachers watching the game, but no one was immediately arrested, according to a sheriff's office spokesperson.
Last year, the FBI began offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone who intentionally aims a laser at an aircraft.
The U.S. Attorney's Office decided to prosecute Ragno in federal court. Although he later pleaded guilty to the crime, a judge decided not to send Ragno to prison. Instead, the Florida State University student was put on probation for one year, and must serve 80 hours of community service.
Ragno estimates he has spent about $30,000 in attorney and legal fees, and he still faces a possible $11,000 FAA fine. He may also have trouble finding a job.
"It can be tough when you have to check the box saying you're a convicted felon, and explain what you did," said Ragno, who is majoring in finance, real estate, and marketing.
The Seminole and Brevard State Attorney's Office opted to prosecute Tufail in state court, where he pleaded no contest. The judge showed leniency to the first-time offender by withholding a conviction from Tufail's record. But as part of his probation, the judge ordered Tufail to educate others about the dangers of laser pointers. And he was required to perform that community service under the direct supervision of the sheriff's chief pilot.
"Don't do it," said Tufail. "It's just not worth it."
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