Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Defense Lawyers for Key West, Florida (FL)

BUI Charges, Laws and Penalties in Key West, Florida

Recreational and commercial boating activity is an essential component of the way of life in Florida. Florida’s economy is inextricably intertwined with boating. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates water-based activities such as tourism linked to saltwater fishing, freshwater fishing, sightseeing, recreational boating, waterfowl, and other types of hunting, and viewing of wildlife brings in $20 billion annually in to the state’s coffers. Additionally, these activities, which do not include commercial fishing, merchant mariners, and federally-funded positions, add about 300,000 jobs every year.

Moreover, water draws people to it. Luxurious homes dot the Key West coastline, while residential communities spring up around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams inland. Given Key West’s connection with water and boating, it is easy to see why Boating Under the Influence, or BUI for short, is a serious crime accompanied by severe consequences.

Boating Under the Influence is Dangerous in Key West

Key West is widely known the world over for its tremendous nightlife and laid-back atmosphere. At any time during the day, beachgoers, revelers, and people just looking to relax can put their toes in the sand with an umbrella drink in their hand. There are few better ways to unwind. While many people who have one too many would balk at climbing behind the wheel of an automobile, some of the same people might believe that boating after having a few drinks is completely safe. Boating easily lures one into believing nothing bad could happen. How could it when you are out enjoying the perfect weather, relaxing with family and friends with a couple of drinks in the blazing sun all day?

The average person underestimates the inherent dangers of boating. The uninitiated could look out at the expansive sea from Key West and see nothing but open space. The temptation is to believe that nothing could go wrong because of all of the room, which is much different than driving a car. The operator of a motor vehicle has to know and obey all of the rules of the road. Otherwise, a collision with another car or object is virtually inevitable because our roads are over-crowded. But when you are commanding a recreation boat — which a person could operate without a boating license — there are no permanent lanes, traffic signals, or other impediments we encounter while driving.

Notwithstanding, the experienced boater will undoubtedly say that navigating a boat safely is much more difficult than it appears. Most people do not understand the physical toll being out on the water has on the body. The constant vibration from the motor, bouncing on and off of waves, intense sunshine, reflection off of the water, heat, and exposure to the wind all are factors that must be considered when boating because of the level of fatigue these factors cause boaters. Additionally, navigating safely and accurately could be difficult. Changing weather, increasing winds, rising tides, and wave height must be negotiated.

Also, there are rules of the water even if there are no lanes or traffic lights out there. The boater must understand when to pass when to give way, how to negotiate channels, and how to dock the boat safely. Like driving a car, all boaters should know these rules so that all people on the water can safely predict what the other boater is doing because both follow the rules of the water.

Alcohol consumption affects boaters in the same manner alcohol consumption affects motor vehicle operators. Alcohol consumption decreases the ability of a person to analyze a particular situation rapidly and accurately. Drinking alcohol impairs one’s ability to react timely, concentrate deeply, and react quickly to danger. Additionally, boaters who have been drinking, just like when people drink and drive a motor vehicle, they have a hard time appreciating the speed at which the boat is traveling, and also have a hard time appreciating the speeds of other vessels in the water. Even though there is plenty of space, boats, unlike cars, cannot stop rapidly. Therefore, the boater must understand distances and have the ability to react appropriately to avoid striking an object like another boat, swimmer, jet ski, or other craft.

BUI Law in Florida

Operating a boat, watercraft, or vessel under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a mix of both of those substances violates §327.25 of the 2019 Florida Statutes. Like driving a motor vehicle, boating after consuming alcohol is not unlawful in Florida, even if not advisable. In other words, Florida does not have a per se law that prohibits alcohol consumption and driving a boat.

Instead, §327.35 stipulates that a person is guilty of BUI when the person is who operating the boat or who is in control over the boat when:

  1. The person’s normal faculties have been impaired by the consumption of alcohol, drugs, or both;
  2. The person’s blood alcohol concentration is measured as 0.08 grams per 100 milliliters of blood; or
  3. The person has a breath alcohol concentration of 0.08 grams in 210 liters of breath.

The prosecution must prove the boat operator guilty beyond any reasonable doubt to win a conviction. The government’s burden is the highest burden of proof used in the American system of justice. A person charged with BUI in Key West has a number of defenses available to him or her, which are discussed in greater detail below.

Key West BUI Penalties

As with every criminal incident, the penalties for BUI in Key West depend upon nature and circumstances surrounding the offense. The maximum penalty for BUI, without any enhancements or aggravating factors, is a six-month jail sentence, accompanied by a fine levied between $500.00 and $1,000.00, with probation for one year or less. Additionally, the person convicted of BUI must perform 50 community service hours within one year of probation.

Subsequent convictions provide the state’s attorney to charge the offender with enhanced crimes. The maximum penalty for a second offense BUI is a nine-month jail sentence, a fine of no less than $1,000.00 but no more than $2,000.00 with probation. The sentencing judge must sentence the repeat offender to ten days in the county jail for a second offense BUI if the previous conviction was within the five years of the latest conviction. The offender is allowed to serve the ten-day sentence on the weekends, provided that 48 hours of the term is served consecutively.

The maximum potential penalties increase to possible felony conviction depending on the timing of the previous two convictions. If one of the previous two convictions falls within the previous ten years before the latest conviction, then the offender is guilty of a third-degree felony. In Florida, the maximum penalty for a third-degree felony is a five-year prison sentence, coupled with a maximum $5,000.00 fine. The crime is a first-degree misdemeanor if the previous two convictions fall without the ten-year lookback period. The maximum sentence in Florida for a conviction upon a first-degree misdemeanor is one year in the county jail with a fine of not more than $5,000.00 but no less than $2,000.00. The offender must serve 30 days in jail or state prison for a conviction of a third-degree felony, with 48 hours in confinement served consecutively.

Fourth or subsequent offenses are defined as third-degree felonies, and there is no limitation on the age of the previous convictions. In other words, Florida law allows a lifetime lookback. The offender will receive a sentence not exceeding five years in the Florida state prison, and a fine between $2,000.00 and $5,000.00.

Florida law allows the prosecution to use convictions for alcohol-related offenses to bring enhanced criminal penalties. Therefore, state’s attorneys could argue that the accused’s previous convictions for DUI, driving while impaired by drugs, or DUI Manslaughter as competence evidence to charge the accused with an enhanced crime for BUI in Key West.

Additional Penalties for BUI in Monroe County, Florida

Incarceration is the most significant penalty facing a person convicted of BUI. Fines, probation, and community service, as well as alcohol education classes, are a component of the punishment scheme as well. Besides, the judge may order the BUI offender to attend alcohol or drug treatment if a substance abuse evaluation suggests that the offender has a problem. Attendance in the program could be either inpatient or outpatient, depending on the needs of the offender. The offender must pay for these services even though the court ordered them.

Key West Aggravated BUI

Florida’s BUI law is nearly identical to the state’s DUI law. As in DUI prosecutions, a state prosecutor in Key West has the authority to charge a person with Aggravated BUI if the individual has a BAC of 0.15% or greater, or if children under eighteen were onboard of the vessel when the operator was under the influence.

The penalty for operating a boat with a 0.15% BAC or greater as a first offense is a nine-month sentence to the county jail, along with a fine levied between $1,000.00 and $2,000.00. A second offense aggravated BUI conviction elevates the crime to a first-degree misdemeanor. Consequently, the offender faces up to one year in the county jail and a fine between $2,000.00 and $4,000.00. Any additional offense carries up to a one-year jail sentence as a first-degree misdemeanor and a fine of no less than $4,000.00.

Boating Accidents Involving Alcohol in Key West

Even the slightest collision or incident on the water could be deadly. Any collision between two vessels has the potential to throw a person overboard or capsize the vessel. Many people harbor the opinion that they could swim to safety if they go in the water. But, when they get thrown overboard violently or unexpectedly, then the situation becomes potentially deadly. The sudden swimmer could be disoriented, injured, intoxicated, or go in the water without a flotation device. The operator of the boat would be liable for any injuries or the death of a passenger who went overboard even if the person was not wearing a life jacket.

The operator of a vessel could face BUI Accident charges if the law enforcement officer forms the opinion that he or she has probable cause to believe that the operator caused a boating accident because he or she was impaired by alcohol.

A person who faces charges relating to property damage from BUI could spend up to one year in jail and pay of $1,000.00 fine upon conviction of the first-degree misdemeanor. The potential penalties increase according to the severity of the incident. The operator of a boat could face a third-degree felony and spend up to five years in the state’s prison if a boating accident caused by his or her alcohol consumption causes a person, even if not a passenger, on his or her vessel, a serious bodily injury.

BUI Manslaughter is a second-degree felony in Florida. A conviction of a second-degree felony carries the possibility of a maximum term of imprisonment of fifteen years and $10,000.00 fine. A BUI Manslaughter charge becomes a first-degree felony if the operator failed to stop and render assistance to the injured person or failed to identify himself or herself as the operator of the vessel involved in the crash. The state does not have to prove that the operator of the boat knew the person died to obtain a conviction for a first-degree felony. Instead, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an accident and the operator failed to identify himself or herself.

Operation of a Vessel Defined

The laws of BUI and DUI are substantially similar. However, they are divergent in one very meaningful way. The law in Florida does not require the state’s attorney to prove that the boat operator was behind the wheel or at the helm of the boat when stopped by law enforcement or when some event occurs. The BUI law in Florida is broader than the state’s DUI laws because maritime traditions of a captain are always in charge of the safety of the crew and responsible for the safe passage of the ship.

Law Enforcement in Key West BUI Cases

A person placed under arrest by a law enforcement officer in Key West for BUI cannot be released from detention until he or she meets the statutory criteria for release. The arrestee may not be released from the place of detention unless and until eight hours have passed, the person’s normal bodily faculties have returned, or the arrestee’s BAC drops below 0.05%. Until then, the person shall remain in custody to prevent harm to the public.

Law enforcement officers enjoy wide latitude to encounter boaters on the water. A law enforcement officer may stop and encounter any boater to perform a safety check and a registration check. The officer could use the safety check as a pretext for a broader and more intrusive search. Therefore, the officer cannot detain the boater for an undetermined period. The officer must release the boat once the officer determines all safety devices are on board and that the vessel is registered.

Notwithstanding, the officer does not have to turn a blind eye to things he or she sees that are out in the open. For example, the officer need not ignore the observation of the person in charge of the boat is confused, slurs speech, and smells like alcohol, or any other sign of intoxication. Also, the officer could take note of alcohol containers in the open. All of these observations could allow the officer to conduct a more intrusive investigation, including but not limited to, compelling the operator to take field sobriety tests and a portable breath test. Failing the field sobriety tests or scoring a 0.08% BAC on the portable breath test, as well as other observations, allows the officer to form probable cause that the operator is under the influence.

Defenses to Key West BUI Charges

Taking a boat out on the waterways in Florida is not an implication that the operator of the boat waives his or her constitutional rights. The government shall always retain the burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt to win a conviction for BUI in Key West. The boater is not automatically guilty.

A skilled Key West BUI defense attorney will analyze the facts of the case and determine where the best and most persuasive defenses lie. For instance, the defense could challenge the assertion that the person charged was the operator of the vessel, as defined by Florida law. The person could be highly intoxicated, but if he or she was not the legal operator of the vessel, then the state cannot meet its burden of proof. There is no law prohibiting a person from becoming intoxicated who is not operating a vessel.

The law enforcement officer’s observations and conclusions are always subject to vigorous attack. Despite the best and honest efforts of the police, they are not always correct in their assumptions. They might be quick to judge a situation and therefore fail to conduct a thorough investigation, or they perform an insufficient investigation and fail to discover evidence that could help the person accused of the crime. Examples of an insufficient police investigation are unlawfully detaining a boat to investigate without evidence to do so or conducting field sobriety tests that are unfair (because of the conditions on the water) or misinterpreting the results of the field sobriety tests. Also, failing to follow established procedures to draw blood or obtain a breath test for a breathalyzer test.

Musca Law’s Key West BUI Defense Lawyers are Ready to Help you Now

If you are facing charges for boating under the influence, our Key West 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 Key West BUI defense lawyer who can help you fight for your legal rights and interests.

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