DOJ: Man fired laser at police helicopter, tried to drive away then crashed

Michael Alvarez was arrested in someone’s backyard “after a short foot pursuit.”

According to the criminal complaint filed on October 30, 2017, Alvarez fired a green laser at a police helicopter shortly after midnight on October 22.

The Fresno Police helicopter, Air-1, was responding to reports of a domestic disturbance before it was struck three times. The pilot, who was not named, was hit in the eyes directly each time.

Air-1 then followed a car traveling northbound on Highway 99 and began to shine its searchlight directly at it. The officers aboard Air-1 radioed down to their colleagues on the ground, where they quickly located a white Toyota Corolla and also started following it.

The Corolla seemingly began fleeing the officers in a chase later described in the criminal complaint: the “high-speed pursuit ended with ALVAREZ crashing his vehicle into the center divider near Floradora and First Streets. ALVAREZ exited the vehicle and ran towards 3154 E. Floradora where he was apprehended in the backyard of the residence at that location after a short foot pursuit.”

As Ars has been reporting for years, federal authorities take such laser strikes very seriously and prosecute cases when and where it can. The Department of Justice told Ars that more than 28,000 laser illumination incidents in the United States have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration between 2011 and 2015. But as of 2014, only 134 arrests were made with 80 resulting convictions.

As of October 22, 2016, the FAA reported 5,564 incidents nationwide for 2016. That’s more than 22 laser strikes reported in the United States every day.

However, what Alvarez likely didn’t know is that Fresno (and the surrounding area in the judicial zone known as the Eastern District of California) comprise a substantial portion of all laser strike convictions nationwide.

In short, if you’re dumb enough to fire a laser pointer at a police helicopter, you’ll almost certainly get caught doing so in Fresno. The city’s airport houses three law enforcement agencies with air units——the Fresno Police Department, the Fresno County Sheriff, and the California Highway Patrol—that operate in increasingly wide concentric circles.

The prosecutor who is bringing the Alvarez case is Karen Escobar, an attorney who’s now filed 17 such similar cases, far more than any other Assistant United States Attorney. To date, she has never lost a laser case. (She told Ars on a Friday that this was her first such case in two years.)

Authorities are generally concerned that handheld lasers, which have been getting cheaper and more powerful in recent years and are openly sold on the Web, could be used by a terrorist or a criminal to bring down an aircraft. While no aircraft in American airspace has ever been brought down (much less forced to make an emergency landing), there has been a concerted effort to identify and crackdown on those carrying out such strikes.

“I don’t know of crashes, but I do know of pilots that have suffered permanent disabilities from laser strikes,” Escobar told Ars in 2016.

If convicted, Alvarez could face up to five years in prison. If he pleads guilty, he likely will only face a few years.

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