The Law and Penalties for “Drunk Boating”

By April 16, 2014General

As warmer weather approaches, Michigan residents are likely gearing up for the summer boating season.  As an attorney, I am often asked about the law and penalties associated with boating and alcohol; i.e., what is and isn’t allowed.

While it is lawful to have open containers of alcohol and drink from them on a boat, it should be no surprise that it is unlawful to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol. Essentially, it is illegal to operate a vessel while intoxicated or while visibly impaired. A “vessel” is defined to include basically any manner of watercraft capable of being used for transportation. The term “operate” means to be in control of a boat while it is underway. Thus, if your boat is secured to a dock or is at anchor, you are not “operating” the boat.

The legal limit for drunk boating is .10 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood (i.e., BAC). This is higher than the .08 BAC legal limit for drunk driving in Michigan. Additionally, similar to the Michigan drunk driving laws, a Michigan boater gives his or her “implied consent” to submit to a chemical test upon the lawful request of an officer. The purpose of the test is to determine the boater’s BAC. If you are arrested for a drunk-boating, you must be advised of the right to refuse the test, and that a refusal carries with it an automatic suspension of your right to operate a vessel in Michigan for six months.

A first conviction for drunk boating (boating while intoxicated) is a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to 93 days in jail, 45 days of community service, or a fine of up to $500, or any combination of these penalties. A subsequent offense within seven years is also a misdemeanor and may lead to a sentence of up to one year in jail, with a minimum 48 hours of consecutive jail time, a fine of $200 to $1,000 and up to 90 days of community service. If a person has two prior drunk boating convictions within the previous 10 year period, the new offense may be charged as a felony that is punishable by not less than one year and up to five years in jail or a fine of $500 to $5,000, or both.

A boating while visibly impaired charge is different than a boating while intoxicated charge—instead of showing that your BAC was over the legal limit, the prosecution only has to prove that your ability to operate the watercraft was visibly impaired due to the consumption of alcohol

Causing a death while operating a boat under the influence of alcohol may result in a homicide charge. Michigan also classifies causing serious injury as a felony offense. If you are convicted of a felony homicide or serious injury charge, you could face prison time in addition to large fines.

The one question I get asked the most about drunk boating laws is, “how will the conviction affect my driver’s license?” Obviously, drunk driving convictions carry with them mandatory sanctions imposed on a driver’s license by the Secretary of State. However, if a person is convicted of drunk boating, the Secretary of State imposes no driver’s license sanctions on that person’s license. Instead, the court has the discretion to order a person convicted with drunk boating to not operate a vessel for a certain period of time. This may be as little as 6 months to one year for the first conviction of boating while impaired, or as much as one to two years for a first conviction of boating while intoxicated.

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