VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — To federal prosecutors, a Virginia Beach man's repeated decisions to shine a laser pointer at passing Navy jets put countless lives at risk. The pilots could have been temporarily blinded by Robert Bruce and crashed, prosecutors said.
To his defense attorney, Bruce's so-called "laser dazzling" in anger over jet noise was not even as serious as road rage: When a driver goes off the handle behind the wheel, he or she is armed with a car or other weapon.
"Mr. Bruce was not close enough to the pilots to cause eye damage, and the pilots training, instinct, and flight profile make Mr. Bruce's dazzling benign and merely a nuisance," Assistant Public Defender Keith Kimball said in court documents.
Hoping to keep his client out of jail, Kimball plans to ask a federal judge today to place his client on probation and order him to attend anger management classes, according to the documents.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher A. George, on the other hand, says laser harassment is a serious crime and should be treated as such. He plans to ask the court to sentence Bruce to the low end of federal sentencing guidelines — 18 to 24 months in this case.
Kimball and prosecutors declined to comment prior to today's sentencing in U.S. District Court.
Bruce, who moved to Chesapeake after his arrest, pleaded guilty July 31 to one count of interfering with the operation of an aircraft.
According to court documents, at least 10 Navy pilots reported seeing lasers emanating from the area of Bruce's home in Princess Anne Plaza between Dec. 29 and June 5.
In addition to using the laser, Bruce, a Vietnam veteran, repeatedly called Oceana's Flight Operations and Noise Concerns line to complain about the jets. In some of the 21 calls he made, he mentioned violence.
"One day, someone's gonna blow your ass up, start taking potshots at your (expletive) precious jets," Bruce said in one message, court documents said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service caught Bruce red-handed, according to the documents. Arriving to serve a search warrant on his home June 5, they saw him walk outside and train a laser at a passing jet, they said
Laser harassment is a growing problem for military and civilian aviators. A laser beam can light up the inside of a cockpit, making it hard for pilots to read the plane's instruments and potentially injuring their eyes, pilots have said.
Nationwide, there were 3,592 laser reports to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, up from 2,836 in 2010 and 1,527 in 2009.
In court documents, Kimball blamed his client's actions on the falling value of his former home in Virginia Beach. He said Bruce believed the jet noise was hurting his resale value and snapped. Usually while drinking, the 56-year-old heavy-machinery mechanic would walk outside and shine at passing jets a pen laser he normally used to play with his cats.
"His concerns to the NAS Oceana Air Operations Community Noise Complaint Line went completely unaddressed, as are everyone's calls to the Complaint Line," Kimball said before comparing his client to someone who exhibits road rage.
While saying his client is sorry for what he did, Kimball also argued Bruce should be punished only for what happened, not what could have happened.
The ability for aircrew to eject in a split second makes the F/A-18 Hornet among the most survivable aircraft if a pilot faces an imminent crash, he said.
Prosecutors don't agree.
"Laser harassment of pilots in flight can result in visual impairment, obscure the aircraft's windscreen, and distract the pilot during critical flight phases such as takeoff and landing," said George, who plans to have a Navy pilot testify today. "Any one of these detrimental effects could cause a catastrophic crash."