A regional task force has found that terrorism was not the motive in a New Year's Eve incident in which someone pointed a high-powered laser at an Anne Arundel County police helicopter that was conducting a low-flying search.
This week, Anne Arundel County police arrested Edward W. Pannell, 38, of the 300 block of Eva Ave. in Linthicum and charged him with two counts each of reckless endangerment and using a laser pointer in a harassing manner, said county police spokesman Lt. Joseph E. Jordan.
Police say the incident occurred as county officers were tracking a person who fled a serious auto accident near Magothy Bridge Road in Pasadena.
Jordan said the pilot and co-pilot of the helicopter were forced to end their search after their vision was disturbed by an intense green light.
Officers searched the area for the person responsible and arrested Pannell.
No one was injured, but Jordan said that shining a laser at an aircraft could have catastrophic results because the intense beams can cause temporary vision problems for pilots.
"Obviously, he didn't understand the risk involved," Jordan said. "It's very, very dangerous to distract the pilot, even for a second."
Jordan said county police delayed charging Pannell until the case could be reviewed by the Baltimore Joint Terrorism Task Force, a group that includes members of the Maryland State Police and the FBI.
Baltimore FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said yesterday that the task force could find no link between the case and any terrorist group or activities.
The incident occurred two days after a man pointed a green laser at a Cessna Citation jet as it approached a New Jersey airport.
In that instance, police arrested David Banach, 38, of Parsippany, N.J., who was charged in federal court with willfully interfering with an aircraft.
He pleaded not guilty, but U.S. District Court records show that Banach had admitted to police that he aimed the pointer at the plane.
High-intensity green laser pointers - which typically sell for $100 to $150 and have a range of up to two miles - have become popular with gadget buffs and are more affordable and accessible than in years past.
U.S. Department of Transportation officials said yesterday that incidents of lasers pointed at aircraft are increasing, with 31 cases reported between Dec. 23 and Jan. 12. The department has received reports of more than 400 incidents since 1990, officials said.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the federal Department of Transportation, said he could not explain the increase.
But he said many of the recently reported incidents involve laser owners who aren't aware of the seriousness of their actions.
"There is no specific or credible information that this has anything to do with terrorism. What it seems to be is people committing stupid pranks," Turmail said.
Turmail said the department has recently required the reporting of laser incidents, and will urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to consider requiring updated safety warnings on laser pointers.
Jordan said Anne Arundel police take the matter "very seriously," and that the misdemeanors Pannell faces were the most appropriate given the determination about terrorism. Reckless endangerment is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Pannell will not face federal charges and was released Monday on his own recognizance. Attempts to reach him by phone yesterday were unsuccessful.