A Jefferson County man has been sentenced to federal prison for laser aimed at a helicopter last year.
U.S. District Judge Anna M. Manasco sentenced 27-year-old Gabriel Lopez Matthews to eight months in prison for laser pointer targeting in Jefferson County’s Star 1 helicopter, according to a joint statement in the Northern District of Alabama
Matthews pleaded guilty to the charge in Rill.
Crime increased on RIL 11, 2020, when Star1 was helping an Alabama law enforcement agency in a night-long operation to recover stolen firearms. While flying down the route of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the helicopter received several laser strikes from its residence below.
The helicopter’s tactical officer was able to determine the location of the street from which the laser strikes were sourced, which was notified to the Birmingham Police Department. Birmingham officials responded to the incident site but were unable to locate the suspect. However, he collected information that led the FBI to Matthews. The agents then obtained a confession from the suspect.
“Showing a laser on a plane can shock the pilot and cause a plane crash,” Escalona said. “Laser strikes can be fatal, and pilots and occupants who are placed on the plane are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Pilots say laser targeting aircraft at night is particularly dangerous, especially when they wear night vision glasses. The beam is blinding and the pilot can be distracted.
The FAA reported 5,663 laser incidents in 2018, down from 6,754 in 2017 and 7,398 in 2016. Last year, in 2020, the agency investigated 3,169 incidents, including several incidents in Alabama.
The maximum penalty for targeting a laser pointer on a plane is five years in prison.
The FBI investigated the case with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Birmingham Police Department. Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Batty prosecuted the case.
“It’s important for people to understand that this is a criminal act with potentially deadly consequences,” Sharp said. “We want to encourage people to come forward when they see someone commit this crime – it can have dire consequences for pilots and their passengers.”