Every state has laws making it illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In most states, boating while drunk or high on drugs is either called “boating under the influence” (BUI) or “boating while intoxicated” (BWI). This article goes into the basics of BUI and BWI laws and some of the consequences you’ll face if convicted.
In most states, the definition of boating under the influence is similar to that of driving under the influence (DUI). In other words, you can generally be convicted of a BUI for operating a boat:
However, BUI definitions differ somewhat by state.
Generally, all states prohibit boating under the influence while behind the wheel of a motorboat or operating a jet ski. But, depending on where you live, it might also be illegal to operate other types of vessels and watercraft while drunk or high on drugs. For example, the BUI laws of some states apply to those operating a sailboat or even a rowboat.
Also, states have different ways of defining “under the influence.” In some states, even the slightest impairment can lead to a BUI, whereas in other states, a boater must be substantially affected by drugs or alcohol to be convicted of boating under the influence.
BUI penalties vary by state (get state-specific details) and may or may not be the same as those imposed for a DUI conviction in the state. But generally, if convicted of boating under the influence, you’ll be looking at:
In many states, anyone convicted of a BUI will also have to complete a boating safety course.
BUI penalties—including mandatory minimums—tend to be more severe if the convicted boater has prior BUI convictions. In determining whether a BUI is a second or subsequent offense, some states count BUI and DUI priors, while other states count only prior BUI offenses. And in many states, DUI and BUI priors drop off your record after a certain number of years. For example, lots of states count only priors that occurred within the past ten years.
All states have “implied consent” laws that require all drivers lawfully arrested for driving under the influence to submit to chemical testing (usually of the breath or of blood) to determine the amount of alcohol and drugs in the driver’s system.
Generally, implied consent laws also apply to boaters. So, if a law enforcement officer has reasonable cause to believe you were boating while under the influence, you’re required to take a test. An unlawful refusal will generally lead to a license or an operating privilege suspension that’s longer in duration than that imposed for a normal BUI conviction.
Most states have open container laws that make it illegal for drivers or passengers to drink alcohol or possess open containers of alcohol in a vehicle. However, open container restrictions generally don’t apply to boat operators and passengers. In other words, many states allow anyone—including the boat operator—to possession an open container or drink alcohol in a boat.