CLEARWATER, Fla. - The U.S. Coast Guard said a patrol a mile south of Clearwater beach was targeted by a laser pointer Saturday night, forcing the crew to return to the station and get eye exams.
The agency said it wants to remind people about the dangers of misusing laser pointing devices, especially when they're aimed at pilots flying helicopters at night.
"The primary danger by far is just flash blinding a pilot," said Patrick Murphy, a laser pointer consultant based in Orlando.
"If you aim at an aircraft or the flight path of an aircraft you can get up to five years in prison and a up to a $250,000 fine," Murphy said.
In this case, the Coast Guard said they haven't found any suspects. And with today's devices commonly sold in retail stores, in some cases for only a few dollars, they are household items for many.
Murphy said there are generally two types of misusers of laser pointers.
"The first is an ordinary citizen who points it up in the sky and doesn't really realize that it's a plane they're pointing at from the ground," he said.
"The second is the kind of criminal element," Murphy said. "They're already doing something wrong and now they're pointing at helicopters."
Murphy said in many cases, police have used the laser beams to track the user and arrest them.
"When they point at police helicopters, they can follow them right back down to the ground. They catch them with drugs or whatever. So now it's a double whammy for them so they're especially stupid," said Murphy.
The problem is on the rise. The federal government recorded 3500 incidents involving laser pointers in the last year. There were no crashes related to the devices, however.
Laser pointers are generally harmless, unless pointed in the eyes at point-blank range.