BUI (Boating Under the Influence)

All U.S. states have laws in place prohibiting operating a boat or any other watercraft while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Each state and the U.S. Coast Guard enforce laws prohibiting impaired boating and arrest people for boating under the influence, or BUI. Conviction on a BUI charge is a serious offense. It can result in incarceration, large monetary fines, suspension of boating privileges, driver’s license suspension, and increases in auto and boat insurance premiums.

Boating laws can be enforced by a number of law enforcement agencies, including local police and sheriff’s or the Coast Guard. Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs applies to most forms of watercraft, including sailboats, speedboats, yachts, fishing boats, water ski boats, jet skis, personal watercraft, and commercial vessels. Talk to your criminal defense attorney if you have questions after your BUI arrest.

Alcohol and Boating Accidents

Laws against BUI have been enacted across the country to help prevent accidents, deaths, and property damage. The Coast Guard tracks statistics regarding boating accidents in the U.S. In 2019, there were 4,168 accidents and 613 deaths involving watercraft. This accounted for approximately $55 million in property damage. A boating accident can be caused by:

  • Collision with recreational vessel
  • Collision with fixed object
  • Grounding
  • Flooding/swamping
  • Falling overboard

According to the Coast Guard, alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Alcohol was a leading factor in 23% of boating deaths. This includes boat operators and passengers being under the influence of alcohol. The most common vessel types involved in accidents include:

  • Open motorboats
  • Personal watercraft
  • Cabin motorboats

BUI Checkpoints

Many states now have laws with formal procedures for setting up BUI checkpoints on waterways. Some cities and counties may have marine units as part of their police department or sheriff’s department. States that do not have formal marine law enforcement officers may also set up BUI checkpoints for questioning and inspecting boat operators and passengers for intoxication while boating. BUI checkpoints operate in much the same way as roadside DUI checkpoints, and this type of enforcement is leading to an increasing number of BUI arrests and convictions.

What is the Blood Alcohol Limit for a BUI?

In most states, the BUI laws are similar to the state’s laws against drunk driving. A blood alcohol content (BAC) that is over the limit creates a presumption of impaired boating. In most states, the BAC limit for boating is the same for impaired driving. The legal limit for boating in most states is 0.08% BAC. For commercial boating, the limit is 0.04% blood alcohol concentration.

Blood alcohol is generally tested through breath or blood tests. Chemical testing shows the approximate level of alcohol in the body. The prosecutor can use the evidence of those tests to get a conviction. Blood tests can also detect drugs in the body. Evidence of drugs in the boater’s body can be used as evidence the boater was impaired by drugs.

The laws against impaired boating also includes drugs or controlled substances. It is illegal to operate a boat or other personal water craft under the influence of drugs or the combined influence of alcohol and drugs. Drugs include more than just illegal drugs. Impaired boating can include medical marijuana or prescription medication.

Consequences of a BUI Conviction

The criminal penalties for a BUI conviction vary by state. First-time offenders can face up to six months of jail time, $1,000 in fines, and probation. In many cases, someone charged with a first-time BUI may have to spend a few days in county jail but can get deferred sentencing to be served as probation. Probation for a BUI may require substance abuse treatment, alcohol counseling, boater safety courses, and abstaining from drugs or alcohol for the period of probation.

Repeat offenders with a prior BUI or DUI can receive a sentence of up to 12 months in jail, a fine of $1,000, and up to 30 months of mandatory substance abuse treatment or educational classes. In addition, a BUI conviction can result in a lasting criminal record. Multiple BUI offenses or designation as a habitual offender could result in prison time. If the conviction involves felony charges, a person’s right to vote can be revoked.

A BUI conviction can also result in the suspension or revocation of boating and driver’s licenses. For people with a commercial boating license, loss of this license can make it hard, if not impossible, to earn a living. Auto and boat insurance rates can also go up significantly for people who receive a BUI conviction.

There may be increased penalties when a minor is on board during a BUI. A minor passenger on a boat operated by an impaired pilot can also result in child endangerment charges. Boating under the influence of an alcoholic beverage may carry the maximum penalty if the boater had a high blood alcohol level, was involved in an injury accident, or caused serious injury or death.

Multiple BUI and DUI Charges

After a BUI conviction, if you are arrested by a law enforcement officer on suspicion of drunk driving, you may face a second DUI charge even if you were never arrested for drunk driving. Boating under the influence can count as a prior offense in drunk driving charges, and vice versa. If the prior conviction was within the state’s designated prior offense time frame, a prior impaired boating or driving charge could increase the penalties after a subsequent conviction.

Boating Injury Accidents and Alcohol

The operator of a water ski boat may have been under the influence of an alcoholic beverage when the water skier crashed into an object and suffered serious injury or death. Even if it was an accident, if a jury determines that alcohol contributed to the accident, the boater could face felony charges. A boating accident involving serious injury or death could result in years in prison, fines, and a felony record.

Boating Safety Tips and Advice

Not drinking on a boat is the best protection against a BUI arrest and conviction. Following these boating safety tips also helps ensure safe and legal boating excursions:

  • Operators and passengers on boats should avoid all alcohol consumption before and during the boating excursion. The impact of alcohol can impair depth perception and peripheral vision, delay reaction time, impair judgment, and increase the likelihood of accidents.
  • Major summer holidays are the most dangerous times for boating accidents. The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day holidays are dates to be especially aware of boating safety and BUI law enforcement.
  • Be a defensive boat operator, and be on the lookout for hazards, such as other people drinking on boats or impaired water skiers.
  • Stay informed about local boating regulations and laws.
  • Boating operators and passengers should wear approved life vests at all times. A life jacket reduces the risk of drowning accidents while boating.

Legal Defense Strategies for a BUI

An experienced DUI and BUI lawyer will investigate your case, and help you determine the best defenses available. For example, if the law enforcement officer failed to follow proper search and seizure laws, you may be able to suppress the prosecutor’s evidence. The law enforcement officer may have also failed to follow the proper procedures for chemical blood testing, compromising the reliability of the results. With so much at stake, you should seek legal representation.

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