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Boating Under the Influence Basics

States have drunk driving laws that were enacted to help keep drivers, passengers, and the community safe. But did you know that every state and the federal government have laws against Boating Under the Influence ('BUI') that allow law enforcement officials to stop boats and other watercraft, and make sure that boat operators and their passengers are safe enough to be allowed on the water?

Being charged with BUI can put your legal freedom at stake, and have serious financial consequences. You could have a criminal record, face jail time, incur heavy monetary fines, and face increased boater and auto insurance rates.

A rise in alcohol and drug-related boating injuries and fatalities prompted state legislatures to enact BUI laws. Over half of all boating accidents involve alcohol or drugs, and alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The U.S. Guard reports that BUI incidents increase boating fatalities by approximately thirty-four (34%) percent.

Whether you operate a fishing boat, sailboat, yacht, personal watercraft, or sailboard, you could be charged with BUI. Just like driving under the influence ('DUI'), legal penalties can range from civil fines and the forfeiture of your boating license, to prison time in criminal cases for causing a death while boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Since boating accidents and injuries rise dramatically when the weather is warmer, it is important to annually review boating safety requirements, and know how boating while intoxicated ('BWI') and BUI laws and regulations affect you.

BUI: The Basics

The U.S. Coast Guard warns that "alcohol is more hazardous on water than on land." The federal law enforcement agency cautions that BUI regulations exist to prevent and minimize the possibility that an intoxicated person will operate a vessel on the water, reduce the threat of harm to oneself and others, and use criminal and civil laws to discourage operating a boat or watercraft while drunk or under the influence of narcotics. Federal and statute authorities can pull the operator of a boat or other watercraft over, just like on the highway or street if you are suspected of drunk driving. Different factors can affect a boat operator's physical and mental abilities while on the water. These include heat, sun, noise, wind, glare, and the motion of a boat on the water for a long period of time. These factors are often referred to as 'boater's fatigue.' If alcohol and drugs are also involved, one's ability to safely operate a vessel on the water can be severely affected.

Law enforcement officials may also set up BUI checkpoints on the water, just like roadside DUI checkpoints, to question and check boat operators for Boating Under the Influence ('BUI'). Some states do not even require 'probable cause' before law enforcement officials can board your boat. In Delaware, they can just do it.

An experienced lawyer knowledgeable about defending DUI and BUI cases can help you know your rights and legal defenses to charges of boating while drunk.

Consequences of a BUI Conviction

Given the rise in boating injuries and fatalities by recreational and commercial boaters, convictions for boating under the influence can have severe consequences.

You could have a criminal record, not simply a fine like a traffic ticket.

Recreational boat operators could have their boating licenses suspended or revoked. Repeat offenders could face higher consequences, as do boaters convicted of BUI while minors were on board, or who gave alcohol or drugs to minors on the watercraft. Your driver's license may also be affected by a BUI conviction.

Commercial boat operators could lose not only their license, but their livelihood.BUI convictions can also generate monetary fines and affect your boat and car insurance rates. A court or administrative judge may also require people convicted of boating while drunk or under the influence to get alcohol and drug counseling.

A felony conviction could mean you lose your right to vote.

BUI: Elements of the Offense

Most state laws define crimes of drunk boating as follows: operating a watercraft on a body of water while under the influence of alcohol. Some state laws provide for a per se BUI offense, which a person commits when operating a boat or other watercraft on the with a blood-alcohol concentration ('BAC') of .08 percent. While most state BUI laws have BAC level requirements of .08 percent, some are slightly higher at .1 percent.

More than twenty states also have BUI laws relating minors. Some state laws make any amount of alcohol in a minor's blood a per se (i.e., automatic) BUI legal offense. In California, people younger than 21 years-old with BAC levels of at least .01 percent cannot even use water skis.

Boating Safety Tips

To avoid being coat in a legal situation that could affect not only your own freedom and safety, but that of friends, family, and other boaters, remember the following:

  • Be extra careful on major holiday weekends. The weekends of Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day are considered the deadliest weekends both on the water and on the road for accidents involving alcohol. Take extra care to use defensive boat operating skills during these weekends, and be aware that local law enforcement officials will step up their efforts to identify boaters who are under the influence.
  • Know your local boating regulations. If you trailer your boat to another state, or to Canada, read and clearly understand what the local regulations say about open containers of alcohol in a boat and BUI laws.
  • Make sure that you and all passengers on the boat wear life vests. Because alcohol, combined with the elements, can impair your balance, wearing a life vest is a good idea. Many boating deaths and accidents could be avoided each year if boat operators and their passengers would simply wear their life vests. Most states also have laws requiring children to wear life vests at all times while on a boat.
  • Get a lawyer. Because defending against a charge of operating a boat under the influence requires an understanding of scientific and medical concepts, it's best to hire an attorney who specializes in BUI and DUI law. FindLaw can help you quickly locate an attorney who is knowledgeable about DUI and BUI law.

Consult an Experienced DUI Attorney

If you or a loved one are arrested for DUI, you may need an experienced DUI lawyer. A skilled attorney who specializes in defending DUI cases will evaluate all the evidence, including the procedure and results of any field sobriety and chemical tests, to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Plus it's important to speak to a lawyer familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction. Most offer free consultations, so your first step should be to contact an experienced DUI attorney.

Next Steps
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