By Tim Akpinar
As boaters look forward to summer, they will sometimes hear public service announcements about the risks of operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol. Most would rather think about plans for a weekend cruise than about the statutory blood alcohol levels that could lead to criminal prosecution.
But when it comes to drinking alcohol on the water, current laws can carry felony charges, prison sentences and stiff fines. A conviction can also mean higher insurance premiums, mandatory boating safety classes and damage to one’s driving record.
Nowadays, most boaters will wait until they’ve securely fastened the mooring pennant on the foredeck before having anything stronger than a soft drink. They understand the importance of not touching a drop while operating a 20-ton vessel with 600 horsepower at their fingertips.
In 2013, alcohol was a contributing factor in 305 boating accidents in the United States.
Boaters should also be wary about drinking alcohol on the water because its effects may vary from one operator to the next. Even with a known number of drinks, different individuals might experience different blood alcohol levels based on gender, the amount of food in their stomachs, and other factors, such as the period of time in which drinks are consumed.1
Blood alcohol level is the basis by which boating laws draw the line on criminal prosecution. These laws may use different terms to denote blood alcohol level, such as blood alcohol concentration or BAC, but the bottom line is that if someone’s blood alcohol level exceeds these statutory limits, the door is open to arrest. Alcohol-related violations on the water are governed by both state and federal law, which means U.S. Coast Guard personnel as well as local police marine units can stop and board vessels.
Under federal law, someone who operates a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or a dangerous drug is liable for a civil penalty of not more than $5,000. Boating while under the influence of alcohol or a dangerous drug is a class A misdemeanor under federal law.2 Different states have their own laws, each with their own definitions, provisions and sentencing guidelines.
It would take considerable space to cover the applicable laws of each state, so I’ll use New York as an example of state law governing boating and alcohol. If someone in New York State whose blood alcohol content is 0.08 percent or higher operates a vessel, it’s considered boating while intoxicated, or BWI. A first conviction is a misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to one year and fines between $500 and $1,000. A second conviction in 10 years is a class E felony, with a sentence of up to four years and fines between $1,000 and $5,000. A third offense in 10 years is a class D felony and carries a sentence of up to seven years and fines between $2,000 and $10,000.3
Under federal law, someone who operates a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or a dangerous drug is liable for a civil penalty of not more than $5,000.
New York State also defines the lesser offense of boating while ability impaired, or BWAI. In the case of BWAI, a BAC of 0.07 percent or higher, but less than 0.08 percent, is prima facie evidence, meaning the prosecutor’s case, on its face, is evident from the facts at hand that someone is impaired. If a person’s BAC is 0.05 percent or higher, but less than 0.07 percent, it is again prima facie evidence that the person is not intoxicated but only relevant evidence that he is impaired. The penalty for a first time BWAI is a fine of up to $500. A second conviction in five years carries a sentence of up to 30 days and a fine of up to $750. A third conviction in 10 years is a misdemeanor and carries a sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to $1,500.4
To put blood alcohol levels in a more tangible context, at 0.05 percent BAC, people experience impaired judgment, lowered alertness and a release of inhibition. At 0.08 percent BAC, they experience poor muscle coordination that affects balance, speech, vision and reaction as well as impaired judgement, self-control, reasoning and memory. At 0.10 percent BAC, the result is slurred speech, poor coordination and slowed thinking. At 0.15 percent BAC, results include a major loss of balance, a possibility of vomiting and far less muscle control than normal.5
Perhaps one of the fundamental reasons for today’s strict BWI laws is the role alcohol plays in boating accidents involving fatalities and injuries. In 2013, alcohol was a contributing factor in 305 boating accidents in the United States.6 Drinking alcoholic beverages at the helm is seen as something people can choose not to do, and the U.S. Coast Guard has compiled exhaustive statistics about the correlation of alcohol and boating accidents.
The meticulous detail of this data aside, one thing remains strikingly simple: Today’s BWI laws can carry serious consequences in the form of felony charges, prison sentences and fines.
Tim Akpinar, mycounsel.us, is a maritime attorney who represents recreational and commercial mariners throughout the U.S. in collision, salvage, injury, and property loss cases. A former merchant marine officer, Tim has taught law at SUNY Maritime College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 718-224-9824.
1National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “The ABCs of BAC—A Guide to Understanding Blood Alcohol Concentration and Alcohol Impairment.” 246 U.S.C. 2302(c). 3New York Navigation Law—Section 49. 4New York Navigation Law—Section 49. 5Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration.” 6U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety, “2013 Recreational Boating Statistics,” COMDTPUB P16754.27