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Boating Under the Influence: The Basics

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a crime in all 50 states. But did you know that every state and the federal government also have laws against boating under the influence (BUI)? These statutes allow law enforcement officials to stop boats and other types of watercraft to ensure that boat operators and their passengers are safe enough to be on the water.

A BUI charge can have serious consequences. Legal penalties on the lower end may include civil fines and losing your boating license. Prison time is on the table in criminal cases for causing a death while boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You could have a criminal record, face jail time, incur heavy monetary fines, and face increased boater and auto insurance rates.

Alcohol and Boating Accidents

About a third of all fatal boating accidents involve someone under the influence of alcohol, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Further, alcohol is the leading contributing factor in boating deaths. Alcohol- and drug-related boating injuries and deaths have prompted state legislatures to enact and strengthen their BUI laws.

Since boating accidents and injuries rise dramatically during warmer weather, it is essential to review boating safety requirements. Know how boating while intoxicated (BWI) and BUI laws and regulations affect you.

BUI: The Basics

Whether you operate a fishing boat, sailboat, personal watercraft, or sailboard, you risk a BUI charge. The U.S. Coast Guard warns that "alcohol is more hazardous on water than on land." Different factors can affect a boat operator's physical and mental abilities while on the water. These include:

  • Heat
  • Sun
  • Increased noise
  • Wind
  • Glare from the water
  • Increased risk of dehydration
  • Motion of a boat

All this can create what's often referred to as “boater's fatigue." These factors can increase the effects of intoxication, making boating, swimming, and using other watercraft more dangerous and even deadly. Criminal and civil laws discourage operating a boat or watercraft while drunk or under the influence of controlled substances.

BUI law enforcement is handled in a similar way to a DUI. Federal and state authorities can pull the operator of a boat or other watercraft over, just like on the highway or street, if they suspect impairment. If alcohol and drugs are also involved, it can seriously impact your ability to safely operate a vessel.

BUI: Elements of the Offense

Most state laws define crimes of boating under the influence as operating any watercraft or vessel while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both. State laws provide for a per se BUI offense, much like a DUI or DWI charge. A person can typically face arrest when operating a boat or other watercraft with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08%. However, North Dakota recognizes a blood alcohol content of 0.10%, while Utah has their limit at 0.05% BAC.

More states are beginning to add per se legal limits of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in your blood. THC is the intoxicating chemical in marijuana and cannabis products. These limits can range from 2 to 5 nanograms per milliliter of whole blood.

At least 29 states also have BUI laws relating to minors. Some state laws make any amount of alcohol in a minor's blood a per se BUI offense.

These laws are not limited to boats. They can include other watercraft and vessels, such as:

  • Motorboats
  • Water skis
  • Jet skis
  • Kayaks
  • Paddleboats
  • Hydroplanes
  • Diver propulsion vehicles

BUI Stops

Law enforcement officers can stop vessels if they suspect the operator is impaired. They may ask you to submit to sobriety tests, such as a Breathalyzer or a blood test. A breath test assesses your blood alcohol level, while a blood test can also look for prohibited substances.

Most states include implied consent for sobriety tests when you get your boating privileges. While you can refuse these tests, you face immediate consequences for not cooperating. These may be fines and extended loss of boating licenses and registration.

Law enforcement officials may also set up BUI checkpoints on the water, like roadside DUI checkpoints, to question and check boat operators for impairment. Law enforcement officers are out on patrols more frequently over the weekends of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Intoxicated operators are more prevalent during these times, which are the deadliest weekends for boaters.

If you're intoxicated, law enforcement will typically arrest you and impound your vessel. Typically, a first BUI charge is a misdemeanor.

Penalties of a BUI Conviction

Given the potential for boating injuries and fatalities, convictions for boating under the influence can have severe consequences.

You could wind up with a criminal record, not just a fine like a traffic ticket. Some states report BUI convictions to the department of motor vehicles, and you may face driver's license suspension and lose your boating privileges.

You may receive a hefty fine and have to complete a boating safety course. A court may also require you to get alcohol and drug counseling.

A second offense will draw higher consequences. If a boater gets a BUI while minors are on board, or if you cause property damage, your penalties will be enhanced.

Commercial boat operators could lose not only their licenses but also their livelihoods. BUI convictions can also generate monetary fines and affect boat and car insurance rates.

Boating Safety Tips

To avoid a situation that could affect not just your freedom and safety but that of friends, family, and other boaters, remember the following:

  • Have a designated driver. If you plan to have alcohol while on the water, be sure someone stays sober and can operate the vessel safely.
  • Stock up on water, soda, and other nonalcoholic beverages. Being out in the sun increases your risk for dehydration. Even if you aren't drinking alcohol, having plenty of cold drinks on hand for all aboard is a good idea.
  • Make sure that you and all passengers on the boat wear life vests. Because alcohol and the elements can impair your balance, wearing a life vest is a good idea. Many boating deaths and accidents are avoidable if boat operators and their passengers wear their life vests. Most states also have laws requiring children to wear life vests at all times while on a boat.
  • Be extra careful on major holiday weekends. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day are the deadliest weekends on the water and roads for accidents involving intoxication. Take extra care to use defensive boat operating skills during these weekends. Be aware that local law enforcement officials will increase their efforts to identify boaters under the influence.
  • Know your local boating regulations. If you trailer your boat to another state or Canada, read and understand what the local rules say about open containers of alcohol in a boat and BUI laws.

Charged With Boating Under the Influence? Get Legal Help

If you are charged with boating under the influence, you may need an experienced DUI defense attorney specializing in boating-related offenses. An experienced lawyer knowledgeable about defending DUI and BUI cases can help you know your rights and legal defenses to charges from boating while drunk. If you have specific questions about your case or need representation, contact an experienced DUI attorney near you today.

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