Boating While Intoxicated (BWI)

Many good people across Texas find themselves accused of Boating While Intoxicated. This is a charge that can happen to anyone, with no criminal intent required. Because of an influx in federal grant money through nationally coordinated enforcement programs like Operation Dry Water, law enforcement is casting a broad net that can lead to wrongful accusations, illegal detentions, and overzealous arrests. If you’ve been accused of Boating While Intoxicated, prepare your defense with an attorney who will safeguard your rights and liberty. 

East Texas is blessed with over 50 lakes offering a variety of recreational activities for residents and visitors alike. 36 of those lakes are over 1,000 acres in size. Many people like to hitch up their boat, and enjoy a weekend out on the water. The slips and boat ramps buzz with activity over special occasions and holiday weekends. Wherever and whenever there are people out on the water, law enforcement will also be present to enforce water safety rules and respond to emergency situations. 

Is it legal to drink alcohol while enjoying a day out on the boat? 

It is common, and perfectly legal, to enjoy your favorite beverage out on the water during a hot summer day. Unlike while you’re driving in a car, it is also legal to consume alcoholic beverages while operating a boat, or other watercraft, so long as you do not drink to the point that you become intoxicated. 

What is the definition of intoxication in a BWI case?

In Texas, intoxication is defined as not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body, of having an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. This is the same definition applicable to Driving While Intoxicated cases. 

Can the police stop and board my boat for no reason?

In Driving While Intoxicated cases, much scrutiny will be focused on the officer’s initial traffic stop. Law enforcement officers on the street can’t just stop every single vehicle because they feel like it. Citizens are not afforded the same protection out on the water. Law enforcement officers are legally permitted to stop any boat or watercraft for the stated purpose of conducting a water safety check to ensure boaters meet necessary safety requirements. If an officer sees discarded beer cans or smells the odor of alcohol, his inquiry could quickly change from a water safety check to a Boating While Intoxicated investigation.

What defenses are available against a BWI allegation?

The best defenses are always those tailored to the individual case. Even though initially boarding the boat or watercraft is lawful, it’s still possible that an officer’s detention violated a citizen’s constitutional rights. 

Assessing someone’s level of intoxication is, as in a Driving While Intoxicated case, an opinion-based investigation. There are certain factors out on the water that can make this assessment even more difficult. An officer may see alcoholic beverages or smell alcohol, but that does not mean the operator of the boat was the one consuming them. Facial redness and bloodshot eyes can be related to the sun and wind, while wobbly sea legs can be mistook for a person who is intoxicated. As in a DWI case, the government must also prove that proper procedures and protocols were collected when securing a specimen of your breath or blood. 

In many BWI cases, time becomes a factor. An officer may spend hours transporting you back to shore, conducting sobriety tests while back on shore, and transporting you to yet another location for a breath or blood test. By the time your specimen is taken, the blood alcohol concentration is not anywhere close to what it was when you were actually on the boat. 

The government’s Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST’s) are very prone to criticism in the courtroom, but to make matters worse for BWI cases, these tests were not even designed for use out on the water. The government turns to seated float sobriety exercises while inside a boat, but these tests are even more flawed than their roadside counterparts. The government’s own study used to justify use of these boating tests concedes that stressors inherent in boating are heat, spray, boat motion, vibration, and glare. Such stressors may cause boaters, whether intoxicated or sober, to perform poorly on field sobriety tests. A thorough BWI defense means meticulously reviewing how the sobriety tests were screened, administered, and graded.