My practice is predominantly in South Florida. We’re surrounded by water at every opportunity, which means people enjoy going on personal watercraft and boats alike. A very common question is, “Hey, if I’m out there having a few drinks on the water, can I still be arrested for a DUI-type of crime?” And the answer is yes. The Florida legislature has made it a crime to be boating under the influence. Although the statutes are a little different and the procedures are too, generally speaking, you’re looking at the same potential penalties, the same risks of a prosecution, much as you would be if you were driving. Under Florida law, a person may be charged with BUI if found operating any vessel on Florida waters while impaired due to alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicating substance.
Now, boating presents additional challenges as well, because unlike when you’re driving a vehicle where we could potentially challenge the basis for why the police officer stopped you in the first place. Police are not permitted to pull you over in a car for any reason other than signs of drunk driving, like swerving or running stop signs; and if you feel you have been unlawfully stopped, you have some legal recourse against the charges. You can’t do that in a boating case. 99.9% of the time, you can be boarded by a law enforcement agency on a boat at any time for what they call a routine safety inspection, and whatever they find, they find. In a car, law enforcement doesn’t inherently have the right to search your vehicle without probable cause; boats and other watercraft don’t have that same protection. There are also many factors that play a role in how BUIs are penalized. Penalties are affected by prior BUIs/DUIs, excessive BAC, the presence of minors on the watercraft, and if the operator contributed to an accident involving property damage, injury, or death.
Yes, you can absolutely get into trouble for boating under the influence, and that’s why you have to be super careful. Of course, no matter how careful you are, sometimes mistakes will happen, whether it’s for you or the law enforcement wrongfully accusing you. No one is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes, including law enforcement, so you shouldn’t feel as if an arrest is a guarantee of a penalty or jail time. There are ways to defend yourself, which we’re really familiar with, so it’s never a done deal.
If you or somebody you know has been accused of boating under the influence, you need a good lawyer, one that has the experience of handling these types of cases, because they are a little bit unique. Usually, the law-enforcement agencies that investigate them are not the typical ones, for example, Florida Fish and Wildlife.
We’ve handled BUI extensively, we are knowledgeable in the ways that the police may implicate you, and we know how to best defend you to avoid the harsh penalties associated with a BUI. Please feel free to call me anytime and I would be happy to discuss with you.