Boats count as vehicles and many of the same laws that apply to cars also apply to boats. In California, the DUI laws for anyone operating a boat or similar maritime vessel closely mimic the DUI laws for drivers. It is illegal to operate a commercial or recreational vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
What counts as a DUI in a recreational boat?
The laws against boating under the influence (BUI) are covered by California Harbors & Navigation Code 655. This establishes two ways you can be convicted of BUI on a recreational boat:
- You had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more
- You were impaired by alcohol and/or drugs (regardless of BAC)
If you meet either of these conditions while operating a boat, it counts as a DUI.
These laws apply to:
- Motor boats
- Sailboats with a motor
- Jet skis
- Water skiers
- Tubes being pulled by a motorboat
Self-propelled boats such as kayaks and canoes are exempt.
What counts as a DUI for commercial vessels?
If you are operating a commercial vessel, you face stricter requirements. Instead of .08%, you can be convicted if your BAC is .04% or above. A single drink is often enough to reach .04%.
Commercial vessels include:
- Fishing boats
- Tour boats
- Any vessel that is out on the water as part of a commercial venture
Is it legal to drink on a boat?
This is one area where BUI laws differ from DUI laws on land. In a car, it is illegal to drink while driving and it’s illegal to have any open container of alcohol. These rules are not true on boats. You are allowed to have open containers of alcohol, your passengers can drink, and even the person piloting the boat can drink as long as they don’t meet the criterion for DUI.
However, be aware that Harbor Patrol and other officers will look for open containers on boats. If they pass you and see your passengers drinking, or you drinking, they may become suspicious and begin to scrutinize your behavior. Many BUI cases begin when a boat was following all laws but harbor patrol noticed signs of drunken partying on board.
Can I refuse a breath test for boating under the influence?
No. When you operate a boat in California, the law says you have given your implicit permission to be tested by law enforcement. As long as the officer has probable cause to suspect you of BUI, taking the test is mandatory. If you think they do not have probable cause, the safest course of action is to follow their instructions and contest it later.
However, breath tests are used slightly differently in boating cases. If you take the test and blow a .05% BAC or below, you will likely be presumed innocent of DUI and allowed to go on your way. (This applies to recreational boaters only; a commercial boater would still be charged at .05% BAC.) If it is higher you may or may not be charged, but if it is .08% or above you will be charged with DUI.
What are the penalties for boating under the influence?
The most surprising penalty to many people is that a BUI case can affect your driver’s license. Again, this is because California treats all vehicles the same, and the DMV assumes that a person who is reckless with one kind of vehicle may be reckless with another.
The DMV will begin the license suspension process immediately unless you require a hearing to stop it. With a boating DUI case, you have only 10 days to request this hearing. The best way to approach your hearing is to ask a DUI lawyer to handle it for you; often, they can get the license suspension stayed until you are convicted—and then fight to avoid conviction altogether.
The penalties for boating under the influence depend on whether it is your first, second or third DUI in a 10-year period (including driving DUIs). The penalties for a first offense include:
- Losing your drivers license for 4 months or longer
- Up to 6 months in jail
- Up to 1,000 in fines and substantial other costs
- 3 months or more of DUI school
- 3 to 5 years of probation
Penalties are substantially more serious if your DUI involved a boating accident that hurt anyone.
Fighting a Boating DUI
Just because you were arrested for DUI on a boat does not mean you will be convicted. DUI lawyers routinely defend people from these charges and can often win the case or get the charge reduced to something much less severe.
In a boating case, the best way to fight the DUI is often to challenge the reason your boat was stopped. Harbor Patrol and other officers need probable cause to stop and detain you. In some cases they may simply stop any vessel piloted by someone who looks young, assuming it is a party boat—this is not a legal basis for a stop. In other cases officers do not document why they stopped the boat at all, or the reason they give is easily disproved. If the initial stop was illegal, then your DUI charge will not stick.
In other cases your lawyer may challenge:
- The validity of the breath test or blood test
- Mistakes the officers made
- Use of special “field sobriety tests” for boaters, which even sober people may fail
People make boating mistakes even when they are sober. Just because Harbor Patrol noticed an illegal maneuver does not mean you were breaking a DUI law. You should always fight your boating DUI.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 862-0199 and get your free consultation today.