Tucson man could get 5 years for aiming laser pointer at Pima County sheriff's plane

A 53-year-old man faces up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for allegedly aiming a laser pointer at an airplane flown by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, officials said. 

Charles William Preston was arrested by federal officials on March 6 after a grand jury indicted him last November for “knowingly” aiming the laser pointer at the aircraft and in its path twice—in an incident on May 5, 2021, and again on Jan. 17, 2022. 

On Dec. 13, the court issued a warrant for Preston’s arrest, charging him with aiming the laser and failure to appear.

In January, the Federal Aviation Administration said laser strikes spiked in 2023, with over 13,300 reported incidents that year—an increase of  41 percent from a year earlier.

Incidents in Arizona remained “consistently high” after pilots reported 558 incidents in 2023, the FAA said. Most of the laser strikes involved green lasers. FAA data showed the
lion’s share of incidents were in the Phoenix-area, though there were
around 100 incidents in the Tucson area, including aircraft flying into
Tucson International Airport and Ryan Field.

“Shining a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety threat,” the FAA said, adding that high-powered lasers “can incapacitate pilots, many of whom are flying airplanes with hundreds of passengers.”

313 pilots reported injuries since 2010 when the agency began tracking strikes, the FAA said.

“The FAA is committed to maintaining the safest air transportation system in the world. Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety hazard that puts everyone on the plane and on the ground at risk,” said FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker in a statement. 

A conviction for aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and up to three years of supervised release, said Zach J. Stoebe, a Justice Department spokesman.

The FBI and PCSD investigated the case and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona in Tucson is handling the prosecution, Stoebe said.