You may have heard the term, but what is a BUI? For many, a day on the water and alcohol go together like ice cream and birthday cake. Nonetheless, boating under the influence (BUI) is extremely dangerous and punishable by law in all fifty (50) states. The most recent statistics indicate that alcohol is a contributing factor in at least fifteen percent (15%) of all reported boating incidents.
Unlike automobiles, boats have no brakes and there are no strictly designated waterways in the vast majority of lakes and rivers populated by recreational boaters. When swimmers, skiers and paddlers are added into the mix with intoxicated boaters, it can be a deadly cocktail.
What Is a BUI?
So, what is a BUI? BUI stands for “boating under the influence” and is akin to motorists getting arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). While organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and heavily publicized legislative and law enforcement initiatives have made the risks of operating a motor vehicle on the roadways while intoxicated a well understood risk for most motorists, operating a watercraft while under the influence has not been as highly publicized as a criminal offense. The lack of publicity belies the seriousness with which the offense is treated as heavy fines and incarceration are risked by any boater caught driving a watercraft while impaired by alcohol or other substances.
BUI laws apply to all types of watercraft, from rowboats to jet skis to yachts. Water enforcement officers are trained to watch for erratic behavior and the telltale signs of a party on the water, which include heavily loaded boats and often obvious consumption of alcohol by passengers. Open container laws on boats are much less strict than in passenger vehicles; boat passengers are allowed to consume alcohol from approved containers while on waterways.
It is important to note that public drunkenness laws can be enforced on waterways against unruly passengers and drinking is never allowed for people under twenty-one (21). Alcohol enforcement is typically an “add on” duty assigned to the Coast Guard and game wardens, some jurisdictions employ dedicated water patrol officers specifically looking to enforce watercraft safety laws such as boating under the influence and having the appropriate number of safety vests.
When Do I Risk Getting a BUI in My State?
A person risks getting arrested for boating while impaired whenever he or she operates a watercraft after drinking alcohol. The blood alcohol content (BAC) for legal impairment is .08% in every state (including the District of Columbia) except North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Carolina. Both North Dakota and Wyoming have a BAC limit of .10% while South Carolina allows a court to presume a boater is not impaired if the BAC is under .05%.
South Carolina courts place an even greater weight on observations of the water enforcement officer than the vast majority of states, which, when available, look to the BAC tests to determine sobriety. In the absence of a BAC reading, every jurisdiction looks to the training of the officer and his or her evaluation of field sobriety tests.
While dash mounted cameras are standard in most police patrol cars and video from field sobriety tests can be used to potentially exonerate someone accused of DUI, boaters are generally out of luck since water enforcement officers rarely have video cameras on their patrol boats. This means the sole evaluator of a field sobriety test is the officer(s) on the scene and any passengers on the boat, who are usually both untrained and under the influence themselves.
Any boater asked to perform field sobriety tests should encourage a passenger with a cell phone or camera to record the interaction with water safety officers if at all possible.
What Are Field Sobriety Tests On Water?
Field sobriety tests (FSTs) administered by highway patrol and other law enforcement officials on land typically include standing on one leg, walking a line, and other balance related tests for which the officers receive training. Attempting to maintain balance on a boat, or after having been on water for hours is a different proposition and such evidence is easily disputed in court. For this reason, water safety officers are trained to administer a battery of seated field sobriety tests (SFSTs) that include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, reciting ABC’s (often backwards), and clapping hands while counting.
The hand-clapping test typically involves alternating the clapping of palms and backs of hands while also counting. These tests are used in conjunction with testing of blood alcohol content (BAC) when possible. However, most patrol boats are not equipped with BAC testing equipment. Furthermore, lakes are often a considerable distance from centralized testing locations. Consequently, considerable evidentiary weight is placed upon the arresting officers narrative opinion and evaluation regarding field sobriety testing.
In this regard, water patrol officers, who typically receive less formal training than their counterparts on land, are given more responsibility because there is diminished opportunity to have the officer’s opinions and conclusions validated by a timely test of the accused’s BAC.
What Are the BUI Penalties?
Penalties for BUI vary from state to state; they closely track those for driving under the influence with regard to fines, incarceration and loss of boating licenses. Penalties increase with additional convictions and can carry significant jail time just as with driving under the influence.
In New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Hawaii, Alaska, and Arkansas a person convicted of boating under the influence can lose their license to drive as well as their boating privileges. Multiple offenses can lead to felony convictions as well, just as with driving a motor vehicle on roadways. Accidents causing death or serious injury can lead to prosecutions for manslaughter or assault, just as with automobiles.
Boaters who take risks with alcohol consumption while on the water take the same risk as drivers crawling behind the wheel of a car. However, they typically do so in broad daylight in an open vessel. This enhances the risks of getting caught by authorities. The larger risk is jeopardizing passengers and other citizens out for a day of fun on the water. Hopefully, this article has given you an ideas as to what is a BUI and why it’s best to avoid the risk of getting one.