Virginia’s Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Laws

Read about the consequences of boating under the influence (BUI) in Virginia.

Virginia law prohibits operating a watercraft or motorboat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A person can be convicted of boating under the influence (BUI) for operating a watercraft or motorboat while:

  • impaired by alcohol to an extent that it’s apparent in the person’s “manner, disposition, speech, muscular movement, general appearance or behavior”
  • impaired by drugs or a combination drugs and alcohol to “a degree which impairs [the person’s] ability to operate the watercraft or motorboat safely”
  • having a blood or breath alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or greater
  • having a cocaine blood concentration of .02 milligrams or greater per liter of blood, or
  • having a methamphetamine, PCP, or MDMA (ecstasy) blood concentration of .01 milligrams or greater per liter of blood.

(Va. Code Ann. § 29.1-738 (2016).)

Standard BUI Penalties

Most Virginia BUIs are class 1 misdemeanors and carry up to 12 months in jail and $2,500 in fines. For a first-offense BUI, the offender faces a 12-month boating-privilege suspension. However, if the boater has at least one prior BUI conviction within the past ten years, there’s a three-year suspension. A judge can also order any BUI offender to participate in substance abuse treatment. And all BUI offenders must complete a state-approved boating safety course.

(Va. Code Ann. §§ 18.2-11 , 29.1-738.4, 29.1-738.5, 29.1-746 (2016).)

Enhanced BUI Penalties

Generally, a boater who causes “serious bodily injury” to another person while operating a boat under the influence can be convicted of a class 6 felony. A class 6 felony carries a prison sentence of one to five years or up to one year in jail and/or a maximum of $2,500 in fines. Boaters convicted of a BUI involving serious bodily injury face at least two years of operator’s privilege suspension and may need to complete substance abuse treatment.

Where someone is killed in a BUI accident, the offender can be convicted of involuntary or aggravated-involuntary manslaughter—both class 5 felonies. Boaters convicted of an involuntary manslaughter BUI face one to ten years in prison or up to a year in jail and/or a maximum of $2,500 in fines. For an aggravated-involuntary manslaughter conviction, the offender will spend from one to 20 years in prison. Both types of BUI manslaughter carry an operator’s privilege suspension of at least five years and the possibility of having to participate in substance abuse treatment.

(Va. Code Ann. §§ 18.2-10, 18.2-36.2, 18.2-51.5 (2016).)


Sentencing law is complex. For example, a statute might list a “minimum” jail sentence that’s longer than the actual amount of time (if any) a defendant will have to spend behind bars. All kinds of factors can affect actual punishment, including credits for good in-custody behavior and jail-alternative work programs.

If you face criminal charges, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An attorney with command of the rules in your jurisdiction will be able to explain the law as it applies to your situation.

Speak With an Attorney

The consequences of a BUI conviction are serious, and the facts of every case are different. If you’ve been arrested for or charged with boating under the influence, get in contact with a qualified attorney. An experienced BUI lawyer can explain how the law applies to the fact of your case and help you decide how best to handle your situation.

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