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Guilty plea in laser pointing case

A 24-year-old Dundalk man has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of pointing a green laser at a Baltimore County police helicopter as it hovered above Patapsco High School last year.

James Robert Hensler faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said the FBI has made it a priority nationally to pursue laser cases because "it occurs with a frightening degree of frequency" and poses serious dangers. Authorities say laser beams can disorient and temporarily blind a pilot.

"We hope to get the message out so people understand it's not harmless, it's not all in good fun," Rosenstein told The Baltimore Sun.

The helicopter was flying over Patapsco High School in September when a green laser beam twice illuminated the cockpit, authorities said in court documents. Two officers in the helicopter put a spotlight on Hensler and called for officers on the ground.

Hensler initially told the officers he didn't have anything to do with the laser, authorities said, but later admitted pointing it at the helicopter because he wanted to see how far it could shine.

A law signed in 2012 by President Barack Obama made it a federal crime to point a laser at an aircraft, and federal agencies have campaigned to spread awareness of the issue.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, BWI Marshall Airport had 11 reported laser incidents in 2014 and 16 in 2013.

Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson said he was pleased that Hensler was "being held accountable."

"Pointing a laser pointer at any aircraft is a serious matter, as it threatens the lives of those on the aircraft as well as people on the ground," Johnson said in a statement. "In this incident, the crew of the Baltimore County Police helicopter was lucky that the use of the laser pointer did not lead to a tragic loss of life."

Hensler's federal public defender, Gary Christopher, declined to comment. U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander has scheduled sentencing for March 25.

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