Boating Under the Influence: Yes, You Can Get a DUI at Sea


Nothing beats taking your boat on the water with your friends and family to relax, especially on holidays. The last thing on your mind is the possibility of getting charged with boating under the influence or BUI – until law enforcement pulls up to your boat and determines that you were boating under the influence of alcohol.

Accident statistics show that the Fourth of July is the most dangerous weekend for recreational boaters, who are more likely to be drinking while boating on holiday. In 2019, California marine law enforcement increased their patrols and BUI checkpoints, joining a nationwide effort called Operation Dry Water (ODW). In the five years prior, BUIs contributed to over 30% of boating fatalities in California and led the cause of fatal boating accidents nationwide.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s recreational boating statistics in 2020:

  • 5,265 boating accidents were recorded with 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries.
  • Recreational boating accidents caused $62.5 million in property damage.
  • The boating accident fatality rate increased by 25% compared to 2019.
  • Compared to the year before, boating accidents increased by 26.3%, total deaths increased by 25.1%, and total injuries increased by 24.7%.

Because of the dangers of boating while intoxicated, California law forbids operating a boat or watercraft with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.08%. This is the same BAC limit used to determine driving under the influence (DUI) on land. If you get a BUI you could face up to 6 months in jail or $1,000 in fines, in addition to getting your boat impounded.

BUI laws under California’s Harbors & Navigation Code 655(b) apply to vessels of all lengths, including open motorboats, cabin motorboats, personal watercraft, motorized sailboats, water skis, jet skis, dinghies, aquaplanes, and pontoons. Non-motorized, self-propelled vessels like kayaks and canoes are exempt unless they have trolling motors attached.

But getting arrested for BUI doesn’t mean you’ll get convicted – especially if you have strong legal representation to defend you. Taking the right steps after a BUI arrest can help you keep your driver’s license and avoid penalties like jail time or fines.

What Happens If You Get a BUI or BWI in California?

A BUI charge is similar to DUI in some ways and different in others. Like DUI, the BAC limit is 0.08% for private boating and 0.04% for operating commercial vessels. BUI applies not just to the influence of alcohol but to drugs as well, including cannabis intoxication. You cannot refuse a breathalyzer or urine test if authorities have probable cause to suspect you of BUI or DUI.

In contrast, “open container laws” forbid you from having open alcohol containers inside your car. However, these laws do not apply to boats, where open alcohol containers are allowed.

When it comes to DUI and BUI, California law enforcement officials need probable cause to stop your car or boat. If authorities become suspicious of your behavior, they can approach your boat, conduct a sobriety check, and ask you to take a mandatory chemical test. If your BAC registers above 0.08%, you can be arrested and charged with BUI.

Can You Lose Your Driver’s License If You Get Charged With BUI?

Unfortunately, yes. California assumes that someone who operates a boat under the influence will use the same judgment when driving a car.

As a result, the California DMV will begin the process of suspending your driver’s license immediately after you get charged with a BUI. The only way to stop your license from being suspended is to request a hearing within 10 days.

That’s not a lot of time. Losing your driver’s license could have a rippling effect on your life, especially if you rely on your car to get to work or take your children to school.

The best way to avoid losing your driver’s license after a BUI in California is to talk to a maritime lawyer about your case. A BUI attorney can handle the hearing by getting a stay on your license suspension until you’re actually convicted. Then your lawyer can fight to keep you from getting convicted at all, so you can avoid any BUI penalties.

What Are the Penalties for Boating Under the Influence?

Similar to a DUI, the penalties for BUI depend in part on your record. When assessing penalties in a BUI, California courts look at whether you received any DUIs within the last 10 years. That includes driving any vehicle under the influence – cars or boats.

A first offense for boating under the influence could lead to penalties like:

  • Having your driver’s license suspended for 4 months or more
  • Spending up to 6 months in jail or 3-5 years on probation
  • Paying up to $1,000 in fines, plus additional costs
  • Enrolling in DUI school for 3 months or longer

BUI penalties get more severe if a boating accident causes someone to get hurt or lose their life. You also face much greater consequences if you’re on a second or third DUI charge.

How Can You Avoid a BUI Charge in California?

A BUI arrest doesn’t mean you’ll be convicted. If you’ve been charged with BUI, a maritime lawyer can help you beat the charges or get your penalties seriously reduced.

You can fight a BUI charge by challenging:

  • The fact that you were actually intoxicated or not
  • Whether law enforcement had reasonable cause to stop your boat
  • The validity of the breathalyzer, urine, or blood tests you took
  • Any procedural mistakes the officers made during your arrest
  • Special “field sobriety tests” for boaters that even sober people can fail

A law enforcement officer may have arrested you for “looking drunk” when you were sunburned, dehydrated, or fatigued from the elements. You may have been targeted because of your age, race, or loud music coming from your boat. Your attorney can argue that your behavior was not unusual or suspicious enough to qualify as probable cause to be stopped.

If you’ve been involved in a BUI arrest or boating accident as a result of a BUI, the experienced and knowledgeable maritime legal team at Wilshire Law Firm can help. Call us 24/7 at (800) 501-3011 or use our online form now for your FREE consultation.

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