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Boating Under the Influence (BUI) FAQs

Operating a boat or other watercraft while under the influence is dangerous and a crime. Boating under the influence (BUI) is a crime under federal and state laws. The U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement officers routinely patrol waterways and can arrest you as if you were driving a motor vehicle under the influence. The law can include everything from canoes and rowboats to yachts.

Below, you will find a list of frequently asked questions about BUIs.

Can law enforcement pull me over in my boat like in a DUI case?

Yes, state and federal law enforcement officials can pull a boat or vessel over on suspicion that they are driving under the influence (DUI) like they can when you are driving a car. Some states do not need probable cause for law enforcement officials to board your boat, only a reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is a much lower standard, meaning the officer only needs suspect impairment. Ohio law enforcement only needs a reasonable suspicion to stop you. In the state of Florida, they need probable cause. But law enforcement may stop you for other reasons, such as a routine boating safety check.

Law enforcement may set up checkpoints on the water, like roadside DUI checkpoints, to question and check boat operators for boating under the influence. Law enforcement patrols are also increased over certain holiday weekends, like the Fourth of July, Memorial, and Labor days, as these times are the most deadly for boaters and drivers.

What Is a 'Vessel'?

It varies. Depending on the law in your state, a vessel or watercraft can include:

  • Motorboat
  • Canoe
  • Jet skis
  • Water skis
  • Yacht
  • Kayak
  • Diver propulsion vehicles

Some state laws require a vessel or watercraft to have a motor to fall under their BUI law. Other states include any device that can move you in the water, so even using a paddleboat after consuming alcoholic beverages could see you facing a BUI charge.

Can I Lose My Boating License or Permit Due to a Bui Conviction?

It depends on your state's boating regulations and the seriousness of your BUI charge. Most states will suspend your boating privileges for some time after a conviction, even for a first-time BUI offense. A few states will suspend your boating registration temporarily as well. Your watercraft may face impoundment.

You will lose your boating privileges longer or permanently with a second offense BUI or have a prior DUI or DWI conviction. States will also enhance your charge and penalties if you have certain aggravating factors, such as:

  • High blood alcohol level, usually 0.15% or more
  • A minor is aboard the vessel
  • Involvement in a boating accident
  • Causing property damage
  • Causing serious injury or death to another

You face a driver's license suspension and other penalties in several states, such as Arkansas and Hawaii. Often, a BUI conviction will appear on your driving and criminal records.

Do I Have To Submit to a Breathalyzer or Blood Test?

No, but most states now have implied consent laws for BUIs, like those for DUIs. Implied consent means that when you get your boating privileges, you have given law enforcement permission to ask you to submit to chemical testing when they suspect you are under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances. While you can refuse these tests, if your state has implied consent laws, there are immediate consequences for not cooperating. Often, these include automatic fines and suspension of your boating privileges.

You won't avoid arrest by refusing to comply with chemical tests. You can still face criminal charges without submitting to a test. Most state BUI laws allow arrest if you appear intoxicated or are not functioning within your normal faculties.

Do I Have To Perform a Field Sobriety Test?

Probably. State authorities can have you perform seated field sobriety tests more appropriate aboard a boat. Law enforcement may conduct:

  • The horizontal gaze nystagmus test
  • The palm pat test
  • Finger-to-nose test
  • Hand coordination test

The general purpose of field sobriety tests is to help determine if you can perform the basic functions required to operate a boat or other watercraft safely.

Officers can also ask you to take chemical tests to gauge your intoxication. Chemical tests can include a Breathalyzer or breath test, blood test, or urine analysis. Breath tests can determine your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Blood and urine tests can also look for other substances, such as drugs.

Do Many People Have Criminal Convictions for Boating While Drunk?

Yes. As more people are taking to the water, more states focus on BUI violations. Operating a watercraft or swimming while you're intoxicated is dangerous. The Coast Guard estimates that more than half of boating accidents and around one-third of recreational boating deaths involve alcohol. Alcohol consumption significantly increases your risk of drowning.

As a result, states and the Coast Guard take BUIs more seriously. Most states and the federal government have lowered their legal blood alcohol content to 0.08%. But Utah set its legal limit at 0.05%, while North Dakota has the highest in the country, with a BAC limit of 0.10%. Most states even allow arrest without meeting this BAC limit if law enforcement determines you cannot operate your watercraft safely because your impairment affects normal faculties.

Will I Go to Jail for a Bui Conviction, or Do I Only Have To Pay a Fine?

The answer depends on your state's boating under the influence laws. You will likely have to do more than pay a fine. Often, a state's BUI laws and penalties mirror the state's DUI laws and penalties. Some states incorporated watercraft and vessels into their definition of a vehicle within their DUI laws, making the penalties for a BUI the same as for a DUI.

Several states allow jail time, even for a first offense. The judge will look at your arrest and charge circumstances when determining what penalties to impose. Some states, like Arizona, have mandatory jail time. Other states will allow for probation or community service hours instead.

The majority of states have mandatory fines for a BUI conviction. The state will suspend your permits to operate any watercraft for a period of time. You may need to complete a boating safety course before authorities permit you to operate a boat again.

Even if I'm Convicted, Can I Perform Community Service?

Maybe, but there will be other penalties as well. Some states will allow a judge to give community service hours instead of jail time, often combined with probation and hefty fines. But, many states require people convicted of BUI offenses to attend mandatory boating safety courses and substance abuse treatment. A BUI conviction may go on your criminal record. Depending on the severity of the conviction, whether it is a misdemeanor or a felony, you could face serious legal consequences.

Often, a BUI will count as a DUI on your record. A BUI conviction is a prior offense if you get pulled over for intoxicated driving. While you may not have gotten a DUI before, you are still charged as if it is your second offense. A second offense within a certain number of years drastically increases your penalties.

More Questions About Boating Under the Influence? Ask a Lawyer

If you have more questions about BUI law or you're arrested for boating under the influence, contact a DUI and BUI criminal defense attorney. An attorney can provide a case evaluation and give you legal advice. Have your BUI case questions answered by speaking to a qualified DUI attorney near you today.

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