Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Defense Lawyers for Fort Walton Beach, Florida (FL)

BUI Charges, Laws and Penalties in Okaloosa County, Florida

Boating, whether it be for recreational or commercial purposes, is a way of life for thousands of people across the state of Florida. Per the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, it estimates that water-related activities such as tourism that is linked to recreational boating, fishing, hunting, and viewing wildlife brings in about $20 million in revenue on an annual basis. Furthermore, these activities, which do not include federally-funded positions, commercial fishing, and merchant mariners, contribute to the economy by adding approximately 300,000 jobs in the state each year.

Water attracts people to it, where large homes are located on the coastline, and where residential communities are created around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Given Fort Walton’s connection with water and boating, it is not surprising to learn that boating under the influence, or BUI, is a common problem in Florida that is associated with serious legal consequences.

Boating Under the Influence is Dangerous in Fort Walton

Fort Walton is a popular place given its laid-back atmosphere and exciting nightlife. This often results in people drinking and boating, thinking that it is completely safe to have a few drinks and operate a boat. Giving the enjoyable nature of boating, it sometimes causes people to have the mistaken belief that nothing bad could happen. However, many people fail to appreciate the risks of boating, even when they have not consumed drugs or alcohol.

Consuming alcohol affects boaters in the same way that it affects those who operate a motor vehicle. Specifically, it can cause a boater to have a decreased reaction time, and the inability to concentrate and respond appropriately to hazards. Boaters who have been consuming alcohol, just like when individuals drink and get behind the wheel of a car, have trouble appreciating the speed at which they are traveling, and have difficulty in ascertaining how fast other vessels are going around them.

Consuming alcohol affects boaters in the same way as it affects operators of motor vehicles. It causes a person to have a decreased ability to react in a timely fashion, concentrate deeply, and respond quickly to hazards. Boaters who have been drinking, just like when people drink and drive a motor vehicle, have difficulty perceiving the actual speed at which they are traveling, and also have trouble appreciating the speed of other vessels in the water. Even though on the open waters there is a lot of space, boats, unlike motor vehicles, cannot stop quickly. Hence, an impaired boater may not be able to understand distance that it takes to avoid striking another object such as another boat, jet ski, swimmer, or other type of watercraft

BUI Law in Fort Walton, Florida

Pursuant to Florida Statutes Section 327.25, it is illegal to operate a watercraft, boat, or other type of vessel when impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both. Like driving a motor vehicle, it is not illegal to drink alcohol and then operate a boat. In other words, Florida does not have a per se law that makes it illegal to drink alcohol and engage in boating. In the alternative, Section 327.25 provides that an individual who is the operator of a boat is guilty of BUI when one of the following elements are present:

  • The individual’s breath alcohol concentration is 0.08 grams in 210 liters of breath;
  • The individual’s blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 grams per 100 milliliters of blood; or
  • The individual’s normal faculties are impaired by drugs, alcohol, or both;

The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt one of the elements above in order to win a BUI conviction.

Fort Walton BUI Penalties

As with any criminal offense, the penalties imposed in Fort Walton BUI cases depend upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense. Specifically, the maximum punishment for BUI, minus any aggravating factors or enhancement, is a prison term of six months, which is associated with a monetary fine of up to $1,000. This offense also carries with it a period of probation for up to a year. The person convicted of BUI must also perform 50 hours of community service during the offender’s one year probation period.

Enhancements to the crime happen when there are subsequent BUI convictions. Specifically, the maximum jail term for a person charged with a second BUI is nine months, with a monetary fine of up to $2,000. A probational period also applies when a person is convicted of a second BUI. Keep in mind that the judge must impose on the repeat offender a ten-day jail sentence if the prior conviction occurred within five years of the current conviction. The offender is able to serve the ten-day prison sentence on the weekend so long as 48 hours of the term is served consecutively.

In terms of a third BUI, a felony conviction could be secured, which depends upon when the prior two convictions took place. For example, if one of the prior two convictions happened within the past ten years prior to the instant conviction, then the offender will be found guilty of a third-degree felony. This conviction carries with it a prison term of at least five years, coupled with a monetary fine that is levied of up to $5,000. Notwithstanding, the offense constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor if the prior two convictions occurred outside of the ten-year lookback period. The punishment for a first-degree misdemeanor is a jail term of one year and a maximum monetary fine of $5,000. The offender must also serve 30 days in prison for a conviction of a felony in the third degree, with 48 hours that must be served on a consecutive basis.

A fourth or subsequent BUI offense qualifies as a third-degree felony, and there is no limitation on when the prior convictions occurred. In other words, Florida law allows for a lifetime lookback period. This means that the offender will have to serve up to five years in prison and pay up to $5,000 in monetary fines. Note that Florida law enables the Fort Myers prosecution to pursue enhanced criminal penalties in a BUI case where the accused was previously convicted of driving under the influence, or DUI.

Additional Penalties for BUI in Fort Walton

Imprisonment is the most severe penalty a person can face after being convicted of BUI. Components of the scheme of punishment, as noted above, include community service, fines, probation, and the requirement to complete an alcohol education course. Furthermore, a judge can order the offender to attend a substance abuse treatment program, whether outpatient or inpatient, depending upon the facts of the case. Unfortunately, the offender is required to pay for such treatment, even though the judge ordered him or her to seek the necessary treatment.

Fort Walton Aggravated BUI

Florida’s DUI law is very similar to its BUI law. As in a DUI prosecution, the Fort Walton prosecutor can pursue aggravated BUI charges against an individual who is found to have a BAC of 0.15% or greater, or if children under the age of 18 are aboard the vessel when the boater was arrested by law enforcement due to BUI.

The penalties associated with operating a boat with a BAC of 0.15% or greater is a nine-month prison sentence, along with a maximum monetary fine of $2,000. A second offense aggravated BUI elevates the offense to a misdemeanor in the first degree, which carries with it a prison term of up to one year and a monetary fine of up to $4,000. Any additional offense is associated with a prison term of one year as a first-degree misdemeanor, and a monetary fine of up to $4,000.

Boating Accidents Involving Alcohol in Fort Walton

Even the slightest collision or incident on the water could be deadly. Any accident between two watercraft could result in a passenger or passengers being ejected from the vessel or could cause it to capsize. Many individuals have the mistaken assumption that they could swim to safety if ejected from a boat. However, when a person is thrown overboard in a violent and unexpected manner, the situation could become fatal. For example, the swimmer could be intoxicated, disoriented, injured, or be unable to swim. Consequently, the operator of the boat could be held liable for any resulting injuries or the death of a passenger who was ejected from the boat without a life jacket.

A boater could face BUI charges if law enforcement has probable cause to believe that the boater caused the accident and was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Specifically, if an individual causes property damage due to BUI, he or she could be charged with a misdemeanor in the first degree, which carries with it a maximum one-year term of imprisonment and a monetary fine of up to $1,000. The penalties are enhanced based upon the severity of the accident. For example, a boater could be charged with a third-degree felony, which carries with it a term of imprisonment for five years and a monetary fine of $5,000, if he or she is under the influence and caused another person to sustain serious bodily injury, including his or her passenger(s).

If a boater who is impaired causes an individual to die, also known as BUI manslaughter, he or she will be charged with a second-degree felony, which carries with it a maximum prison term of fifteen years and a monetary fine of up to $10,000. A BUI manslaughter charge becomes enhanced to a first-degree felony if the boater fled the scene of the accident and caused a person to perish. Keep in mind that the state does not need to prove that the operator of the boat was aware that a person died in order to secure a first-degree felony conviction. Instead, the prosecution only has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an accident and that the boater did not stop to identify himself or herself and render aid. A first-degree felony conviction results in a prison term of up to thirty years and a maximum $10,000 monetary fine.

“Operation” of a Vessel Defined

While DUI and BUI laws in Florida are very similar, they are different in one very crucial way. In Florida, the prosecution does not need to establish that a boater was behind the wheel while intoxicated in order to win a BUI conviction. Specifically, an operator, under Florida law, is defined as the individual who is in command or control of a vessel. Hence, the person in control or command of a vessel may not be the one who is behind the wheel at the time of the stop by law enforcement. This is different than DUI laws because a motorist must be intoxicated and behind the wheel in order for a prosecutor to pursue a DUI conviction. Essentially, the foundation of the state’s BUI laws is derived from maritime traditions of a captain who is always responsible for the safety of the crew and the safe passage of a boat.

Law Enforcement in Fort Walton BUI Cases

A person who is arrested by a Fort Walton law enforcement officer for being suspected of BUI cannot be released from prison until one of the following three conditions are met. Specifically, the individual who was arrested will be detained until eight hours have passed since the person’s arrest, the person’s normal faculties have returned, or his or her BAC drops below 0.05%. Until such time, the individual will remain in jail in order to prevent him or her from causing harm to the public.

Law enforcement in Fort Walton has significant latitude to stop boaters on the water. In fact, they have the right to stop a boater in order to perform a registration and safety check. The officer could use a safety check as a way to perform a more intrusive and in-depth investigation. However, the officer does not have the right to detain a boater for an undetermined period of time. Essentially, the officer must release the boater once he or she determines that all safety devices are on board and that the boat is registered properly.

During a safety check, the officer can observe things that seem to be suspicious during a stop. For example, the officer may find that the boater appears confused, is slurring speech, smells like alcohol, or is showing some other form of impairment. Moreover, the officer could observe that there are alcohol containers in plain view on the boat. This could give the officer the right to conduct a more intrusive search, which may include asking the boater to perform a field sobriety test and to submit to a portable breath test. Failing these tests could give the officer probable cause to make an arrest.

Defenses to Fort Walton BUI Charges

Just because a person operates a boat does not mean that he or she has waived his or her constitutional rights. Specifically, the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the boater was under the influence at the time of his or her arrest. Meaning, the boater is not automatically deemed guilty of this offense.

A skilled Fort Walton BUI defense attorney will review the facts of the case and render a determination as to the best defense strategy allowable by law. For example, the defense could challenge the prosecution’s assertion that the boater was operating the vessel at the time of the stop, as defined above. In essence, a person on a boat may be highly intoxicated, but if he or she is not the operator of the vessel, then the state has not met its burden of proof in establishing guilt. There exists no law in Florida that prohibits a passenger of a boat from drinking and becoming impaired.

Furthermore, the observations of the officer may be subject to a vigorous defense. In spite of the efforts of police, they are not always accurate in their assumptions. For instance, they may be quick to judge a certain situation and fail to thoroughly investigate the matter. Examples of an insufficient police investigation are unlawfully detaining a boat without evidence to do so, or conducting a field sobriety test that was unfair (whether because of water conditions, injury or disability), or not properly interpreting the results of a field sobriety test. An officer may also fail to follow established procedures such as a blood or breath test.

Musca Law’s Fort Walton BUI Defense Lawyers are Ready to Help you Now

If you are facing charges for boating under the influence, our Fort Walton defense attorneys are ready to help you launch the strongest defense case possible. The repercussions of a BUI charge can negatively impact a person’s life for years to come. That is why it is critical that you contact a seasoned Fort Walton BUI defense attorney who can help you fight for your legal rights and interests.

Contact Musca Law to discuss the facts and circumstances of your case. Call (888) 484-5057 to schedule a complimentary consultation and to learn how our experienced Fort Walton BUI defense lawyers can fight for you.

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