Boating Under the Influence

Boating Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs, commonly known as BUI, is very similar to driving a car under the influence (DUI). There is also a federal law prohibiting boating under the influence that is enforced by the Coast Guard. BUI laws apply to all types of boats – from canoes and rowboats to cruise ships and foreign vessels operating in United States waters.

Operating a boat and driving a car require similar skills, for example, peripheral and night vision, focus, the ability to distinguish colors, judgment, coordination and reaction time. When these skills are affected, it causes boaters to operate a boat like a drunk driver operates a car. In other words, the police and coast guard look for boaters who are speeding, driving erratically, driving without navigation lights at night, violating right-of-way and no wake rules, etc. Because the boat's motion, vibration and engine noise and the sun, wind and spray can intensify the effects of alcohol, it often takes less alcohol than usual for a boat operator to exhibit the signs of drunk boating.

Like a DUI traffic stop, a person suspected of BUI will be given field sobriety tests and will be asked to take a blood or breath test to determine his or her blood alcohol content (BAC). In California, a person with a .08% BAC is presumed to be intoxicated. If the BAC is between .05% and .08%, the person can be deemed intoxicated based on the BAC and other evidence (e.g., boating violations, the field sobriety test results). Minors (individuals under the age of 21) are not allowed to drink and drive a boat. A BAC of just .01% is enough for a minor to be charged with a BUI.

BUI Law - California

California BUI law is contained in California Harbors and Navigation Code section 655. The DUI and BUI laws are almost identical, other than the lack of open container restrictions for boaters. According to the law, it is illegal to operate any boat or other watercraft with a BAC at or above .08%. It is also illegal to operate a boat under the influence of any drug – illegal, prescription or over-the-counter. These restrictions also apply to crew members of charter boats and water skiers. A commercial vessel operator's BAC cannot be at or above .04%.

BUI Penalties - California

California BUI penalties are similar to the California DUI penalties:

  • Basic BUI is a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to one year in the county jail, and/or up to $1,000 in fines, plus penalty fees.
  • BUI causing injuries can be charged as a felony and carries a sentence of up to one year in state prison and up to $5,000 in fines, or both.
  • BUI causing death is a felony and carries a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison.

In addition to incarceration and fines, a person who is convicted of BUI may be ordered to take a boating safety course and/or have his or her driver's license suspended or revoked for up to five years.

Importantly, a BUI conviction is treated as a prior in future drunk driving cases or drunk boating cases. In other words, if a person who has been convicted for BUI is arrested for DUI within ten years of the BUI, the DUI will be treated as a second offense. A second DUI or BUI offense carries much harsher penalties.

In California, there are more than 150 state and local agencies enforcing the boating while intoxicated laws. Because of the increasing numbers of alcohol-related boating accidents, boating enforcement officers have increased their efforts to arrest intoxicated boat operators. A criminal defense attorney who is experienced in DUI and BUI cases is a key to obtaining the best possible outcome for individuals charged with boating while intoxicated.

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