Boating Under the Influence Defense in St. Petersburg, Florida

Boating is a popular pastime in many parts of the United States. As of 2017, there were about twelve million registered boats across the country, with Florida in the lead for the most registered vessels out of all 50 states.

Taking out a boat is often recreational rather than a form of transportation. On the water, people are enjoying friends and family, relaxing and having fun. It is important to remember, however, that operating a boat requires both alertness and skill. In Florida, as in other parts of the country, operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol is against the law. Individuals who violate Florida’s boating statute will face severe penalties if convicted. If you are facing such allegations, contact a St. Petersburg BUI defense attorney.

Boating Under the Influence Law in Florida

Florida Statutes Section 327.35 defines the crime of boating under the influence. Pursuant to the statute, a person can be convicted of a BUI if he or she operates a vessel on the water in the state of Florida while:

  • Impaired by a drug or alcohol that impedes his or her ability to control the boat safely;
  • Having a blood alcohol content of .08 percent by volume or higher; or
  • Having a breath alcohol level of .08 percent per volume or higher.

The blood-alcohol level for boating under the influence in Florida is the same as that for driving under the influence. Like DUIs, BUIs are taken seriously by Florida law enforcement.

Sentencing for BUI’s in Florida

The sentencing guidelines for BUIs are defined by statute. Under the law, those convicted will face:

  • Fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 and a possible prison sentence of up to six months.
  • Fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 for a second offense, and a possible prison term of up to nine months.
  • Fines of up to $5,000 and a third-degree felony conviction for a third offense that occurs within the same decade as another BUI offense. These individuals may face as much as five years in prison for their crimes. If the third offense was not within ten years of one previous offense, the fine would range from $2,000 to $5,000, and the maximum prison term will be twelve months.
  • If a person is convicted of four or more BUIs, the fine will be set between $2,000 and $5,000. This will be considered a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

In some instances, the penalties are increased because of other circumstances or previous offenses. In situations where the defendant has previous DUIs, a DUI manslaughter charge, or other similar convictions, these could impact the sentencing terms for a BUI.

Additional Sentencing and Consequences

When a person commits a BUI, consequences extend beyond prison time and fines. Probationary periods and community service hours are mandatory in some circumstances. The court cannot offer any person leniency beyond minimum sentencing guidelines. The following are consequences a person may face for a BUI:

First-time BUI offenders can face up to one year on probation and a maximum of 50 hours of community service.

Second-time offenders with an earlier BUI within the previous five years will face at least ten days in jail. The time must be served with at least 48 of the hours being consecutive.

For offenders convicted of a third BUI within ten years or more than three BUIs, there will be a minimum mandatory sentence of 30 days incarceration. Again, the person may divide that sentence, but at least 48 hours must be consecutive.

The law also mandates that the court must impound the vessel involved in the BUI incident.

Courts will also order the convicted individual to complete a substance abuse course or program. The individual might need to complete an evaluation related to their drug or alcohol use and habits, and in some instances, to complete a program at a residential or intensive treatment facility. The convicted person must bear the costs affiliated with such treatment.

BUIs and Minors on Board and Elevated BACs

If a person operating a boat is under the influence with a BAC of 0.15 percent per volume, or if there are individuals on the vessel who are below the age of eighteen, then the penalties will be enhanced. The enhanced sentences are as follows:

  • Fines between $1,000 and $2,000 for the first offense with minors on board, along with a prison sentence of a maximum of nine months.
  • Fines between $2,000 and $4,000 for a second offense with minors on board, along with a prison sentence of a maximum of twelve months,
  • Additional convictions come with a minimum fine of $4,000.

BUI Manslaughter: Drunk Boating that Causes Injuries and Fatalities

The penalties for boating under the influence are enhanced when the person who is impaired causes an accident that leads to injuries or death.

When the incident causes property damage or bodily injuries to another individual, the defendant will be facing first-degree misdemeanor charges. If convicted, the person may be imprisoned for up to one year and be ordered to pay a fine of $1,000.

In the event that a victim sustained serious bodily injuries, the boat operator may face third-degree felony charges. The sentencing will include a maximum of five years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.

In the most severe boating accidents, those which result in the death of a human being, the crime will be charged as a second-degree felony. The sentencing for these individuals will include imprisonment for a maximum of fifteen years and fines of up to $10,000.

When the operator of a boat is under the influence and causes a deadly crash and then flees the scene, the penalties become even more severe. Under Florida law, a person who knew or should have known that they were involved in a crash, and yet failed to stop and provide assistance and report the incident, the crime will be charged as BUI manslaughter. BUI manslaughter involving a boater who flees the scene constitutes a first-degree felony that is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and fines of up to $10,000. In order to face these charges, the defendant need not know that anyone was injured or killed in the crash. As long as he or she is aware that a crash took place, this charge may stand.

Post-Arrest Mandatory Detention

When a person is suspected of having been operating a boat or similar vessel while under the influence of alcohol, the police are required to keep that person in custody pursuant to certain terms.

Officers will not release the suspect until:

  • The individual is no longer under the influence of the drugs or alcohol and has regained their normal level of mental capacity;
  • The individual’s blood alcohol level is lower than .05 percent alcohol per volume; or
  • The suspect has been held for at least eight hours.

Police may release the person when the first of any of these situations occur.

What Constitutes Operating a Vessel

Under Florida statutory law, to operate a vessel means to be in charge, command, or control of a boat or similar vessel. A person who is responsible for steering a boat while it is being towed will also be considered the operator of that vessel for the purposes of the BUI statute.

BUI Investigations in Florida

Investigations of a BUI will most often begin once a law enforcement officer or a warden suspects that the operator of a vessel is impaired. This might mean that the vessel is traveling in an unsafe or erratic fashion. If other people call and report that the vessel is traveling in an erratic manner, law enforcement might stop the boat to investigate whether the operator is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

When law enforcement stops a vessel, the operator will likely be asked to take a breathalyzer test to determine the possible level of intoxication. Officers will arrest anyone whose BAC is determined to be above the legal limit of .08 percent alcohol per volume. If the test is not performed, the investigating officers may request that the person perform field sobriety tests. Police may arrest the individual based on the person’s appearance and demeanor. If the officer observes indications that the individual is impaired, this is enough to warrant an arrest.

It is important to note that a person can get a BUI even if their blood alcohol level is below .08 percent alcohol per volume. If police can show impairment of the suspect’s “normal faculties,” this will be enough even to arrest the individual. In cases where people are out in the sun and drinking, the effects of alcohol might be more pronounced, leading to BUI charges even when a person’s BAC is below the legal limit.

Fighting the Charges: Defenses Available in BUI Cases

For those suspected of boating under the influence, there are ways to defend against the allegations. The right defense for your case will depend on the specific circumstances. Some possible defenses include:

Improper evidence collection: If the arresting officer failed to perform the test properly, then the results may not be valid. Conducting breathalyzer and blood tests is a complex procedure, and proper steps must be followed in order to ensure that the results are accurate. If any steps were skipped or not performed properly, then the jury or the judge will be able to decide whether to disregard that evidence. An attorney can argue that the failure to perform the tests properly could have led to incorrect results.

The evidence is questionable: In some cases, officers may incorrectly suspect impairment. If there are no blood or breathalyzer test results, and the officer’s observations are being used as evidence, then it might be possible to assert that the observations were not accurate or indicated something other than impairment, such as an underlying medical condition.

Statements made by the accused were improperly solicited: While officers are permitted to question a person to determine whether a legal violation is likely, suspects have rights. Once a person is placed under arrest, the officers are required to read that individual the Miranda rights. If the officers place the individual under arrest and question him or her, but neglect to first provide Miranda warnings, then those statements can be excluded as evidence against the accused.

FAQs for Boating Under the Influence in Pinellas County 

What is considered a boat or vessel under the statute?

Any craft that has the ability to transport persons on a body of water is considered a vessel or boat based on the terms of the statute. Seaplanes are explicitly excluded, but any other type of craft will meet the definition.

Can I be arrested if I do not take the breath test?

Refusing to undergo a breathalyzer will not mean that the officer cannot arrest a person. Law enforcement may make an arrest for BUI based on the officer’s observations of the vessel operator’s demeanor and behavior, as well as other observations that may lead the investigator to believe that the person was imbibing alcohol or another drug.

Will my driver’s license be impacted by a BUI?

Having a BUI will not impact an individual’s driver’s license.

Can a passenger be arrested for BUI?

Passengers will not be arrested for BUIs. The statute requires that a person was operating a vessel in order for that person to face charges. Officers must be able to show that the individual was controlling or in command of the boat.

Will I face charges if I am no longer operating the vessel when officers arrive?

Yes. While DUIs only apply to a person while he or she is behind the wheel of a vehicle, boats are different. A person might be considered in command of or in charge of that vessel even if they are currently just floating or being towed by another boat.

If a person is arrested for BUI, will they be placed in jail?

Yes. If officers arrest an individual for boating under the influence, this means that law enforcement personnel believe that they have sufficient evidence to charge that person. Police will hold the individual in custody until that person is no longer impaired, their blood alcohol level drops to less than .05 percent by volume, or eight hours have passed from the time of the arrest.

Can officers arrest and charge me for impairment for something other than alcohol?

Officers may arrest and charge a person for a BUI for alcohol or drug impairment. There are numerous substances that can impair a person’s ability to safely operate a vessel. If police can show that the person was impaired by any of those substances, the individual may face BUI charges.

Can police charge me with a felony BUI in Florida?

Under certain circumstances, a BUI can become a felony. In the state of Florida, both a person boating under the influence can be guilty of either misdemeanor offenses or felony offenses. When the suspect has multiple previous DUI or BUI charges, then he or she may face elevated charges amounting to a felony. In some cases, a first-time offender may be charged with a felony offense because the BUI resulted in severe injuries or death, or because the operator fled the scene following a boating crash. It is important to understand the charges filed against you. In many cases, BUIs will lead to high fines and prison terms.

Getting Legal Help

BUIs are serious charges, and the consequences can last long after a person is convicted and serves his or her time. The fines and payments for treatment can run in the thousands of dollars.

The attorneys at Musca Law have years of experience representing clients charged with serious crimes, including BUIs. Our St. Petersburg based attorneys are ready to speak with you about your case and the questions you undoubtedly have if you were recently charged with a BUI. We have representatives standing by 24 hours a day to discuss your case.

Everyone has the right to an attorney. Make sure you protect your life and your future by hiring a defense lawyer who knows how to fight the charges filed against you. To schedule a no-cost consultation with one of Musca’s St. Petersburg criminal defense attorneys, contact us at (888) 484-5057.

Get your case started by calling us at (888) 484-5057 today!