The Red Dot Can Put You on the Spot

People do strange things to make themselves annoying. Here's one I'd paid little attention to:

At night, you beam a laser pointer at passing motorists. The bright red light of the small, hand-held laser disorients the heck out of them. For the dork with the pointer, obviously great fun.

Not long ago motorists complained to police that they were getting beamed by three people from an overhead pedestrian bridge along Tustin Ranch Road. Basketball players have complained about getting beamed from the stands during a game. But then, in Pittsburgh not long ago, sports photographers at a basketball game were complaining about players on the bench beaming them.

Do those same thing today in California and guess what? You can get arrested.

Gov. Gray Davis recently signed two bills aimed at curbing laser pointer pranksters.

One, sponsored by Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), makes it a misdemeanor to aim a laser pointer at someone in an intimidating manner. You can get up to 30 days in jail. Beam a police officer and it could be six months to a year behind bars.

A second bill, sponsored by Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles) makes it illegal to sell a laser pointer to a minor unaccompanied by an adult. It also bans minors from using such lasers on school grounds--except for educational purposes. The fine on Wesson's bill is $50 and higher, plus four hours of community service.

There's a good reason for the Legislature targeting teens: It's become a fad with some of them. They point them at cars or teachers walking across campus and at ball games. If you can't beat 'em, beam 'em?

Teens call it "spotting."

Laser pointers were first manufactured as high-priced lecture aids used during boardroom meetings or at seminars. Coaches used them for showing plays on a screen. But newer, cheaper devices have made most of these lasers obsolete.

Thousands are still around, however. And when misused, they can be more than just annoying; they can be dangerous.

Police say motorists can become temporarily blinded by the beams. Two years ago, someone in the Northern California town of Pittsburg shined the red-light beam on a helicopter pilot, forcing him to lose temporary control and almost crash.

Beyond that, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration reports that the beam of light from these lasers can create eye damage.

But it wasn't FDA pressure that got Assemblyman Wesson's attention. He discovered the problem in his own backyard. While returning from a walk in his Ladera Heights neighborhood, he saw a beam of red light against a wall.

"I thought it was a sniper on the roof," he said.

Turns out it was his own son, playing with a laser pointer. Then at a college basketball game, Wesson saw another laser prankster distract a college basketball player during an important game.

So Wesson had his staff look into it and discovered that the lasers really needed to be placed under some kind of legal control.

The Assembly isn't the first to address the issue.

The city of San Ramon banned these lasers more than a year ago. And last year the Fountain Valley School District here in Orange County banned laser pointers on district property and at any district-sponsored event. The Green Bay Packers became the first pro team to ban them.

If your child has such a laser, you might warn them: They now risk arrest if they misuse them.

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Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.

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