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The AIR-1 helicopter is one of two choppers used by Edmonton police. ((CBC))

A man from Lacombe, Alta., was cleared Thursday of a charge he deliberately pointed a laser at an Edmonton police helicopter last summer.

Alvin Bautista had been accused of interfering with the safe operation of an aircraft, an offence under the federal Aeronautics Act.

The Crown alleged he shone a high-powered laser at Edmonton police's AIR-1 helicopter as it was flying 1,000 feet above the city on Aug. 19. 

Bautista, 38, told his trial that he pointed the laser toy at a tree while fixing it for his son. He never intended to shine it at the helicopter, he said.

On the night of the incident, the chopper's crew followed the direction of the beam and found it was coming from a vehicle in southeast Edmonton. Constables on the ground were alerted, and the vehicle was eventually pulled over.

"I was surprised when I saw a helicopter arrive," Bautista told the court. "I told him I had no intention of doing that, and I was sorry."

In acquitting the defendant, provincial court Judge P.G. Sully said Thursday he found Bautista's testimony "truthful, reliable and trustworthy." He said he believed Bautista's explanation that when he pointed the laser at the tree, he didn't know the beam actually went through the branches and blanketed the police chopper with green light three kilometres away.

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Defence lawyer Lloyd Nelson says it's been an "excruciating experience" for Alvin Bautista since he was charged last summer with endangering an aircraft. ((CBC))

Bautista, an immigrant from the Philippines and father of three, still faces a much less serious charge of projecting a directed bright light source into navigable airspace in a manner that endangers aviation. That count is akin to a traffic offence and carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine. 

"It's been an excruciating experience," defence lawyer Lloyd Nelson said of the trial's impact on his client. "Mr. Bautista has never been involved with the law before .… Basically, he's a law-abiding citizen, but he's been caught in this situation."

'Very significant safety threat'

Laser beams are dangerous when they are shone at aircraft, Chris Barbar of the Edmonton police told CBC last summer.

"When you shine it about a thousand feet high or a mile distance, it becomes about a 30-foot-wide laser beam that covers the whole cockpit," Barbar said. "Depending on the class of laser, it also endangers the eyesight of the flight crew."

AIR-1 gets a laser beam shone at it about 10 to 12 times a year. While police were able to track down a suspect in the August case, that doesn't often happen, Barbar said.

In the last two years, there have been 198 events involving lasers and aircraft in Canada, according to Barry Wiszniowski of the Air Canada Pilots Association.

"This is not a threat to be taken lightly," he said. "It's a very significant safety threat to what we deal with day in and day out."

The maximum penalty for interfering with the safe operation of an aircraft is a $100,000 fine and five years in prison.

In 2008, a 29-year-old man was fined $1,000 for shining a laser beam into the cockpit of an Air Canada plane as it was landing at Calgary International Airport in October 2007.