Can You Get a DUI in a Boat Without a Large Motor?

If the boat is motorized, engine size doesn't matter

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on November 8, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Tracey A. Wood

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Somehow a rumor has spread among boaters that they can’t receive a DUI if they’re using a trolling motor as opposed to an inboard/outboard watercraft. Whether the thinking is related to the power of the motor or what powers the motor (battery versus gas), either way, the rationale is incorrect.

“The simple truth is that, if it has a motor, you can’t operate it while intoxicated, period,” says Tracey A. Wood, a DUI attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. “A trolling motor is still a motor, and in drunk driving law, anything with a motor—even a moped or scooter—you can’t operate while under the influence over a certain limit.” The size of a boat’s engine is simply not a relevant factor.

Under state laws, you can be charged with boating under the influence (BUI) if you operate a motorboat while intoxicated. If your craft has a motor, it is covered by state law.

In most states, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) legal limit for drivers over 21 is 0.08 in a car or boat.

If your blood alcohol level is at or above 0.08, you can be arrested and charged with boating under the influence of alcohol (BUI).

The maximum allowable blood alcohol content level is lower for the boat operators of commercial vessels. If you’re operating a commercial motorboat, you can be charged with a DUI if your BAC level is 0.04 or higher. If cannabis or other drugs are detected after a blood test, that is also prohibited in many states.

The simple truth is that, if it has a motor, you can’t operate it while intoxicated, period.

Tracey A. Wood

Despite being on the water, field sobriety tests are still conducted, Wood says.

“What they usually do is have you come in their police boat and then bring you to shore to do the field sobriety tests there. I’ve also seen the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (HGN) on the water, which I would challenge the validity of given the accuracy on water.”

Every motorboat operator has already given law enforcement authorization to conduct a breath test or blood test. This is because states have implied consent laws for boating. It’s very similar to implied consent laws for operating a motor vehicle on a public road.

If you are arrested for a boating DUI and you refuse to provide a breath, blood, or urine sample, you could have your license suspended.

Can You Get a DUI on a Rowboat?

There is one way you can operate a boat without fear of a DUI, and that is by only using oars.

That would be like riding your bike. However, there’s always something you could be charged with if you endanger others or are exhibiting intoxication in public. So it’s not going to be a drunk driving arrest, but you could still be prosecuted,” Wood says.

“There’s actually a separate part of the boating intoxication law that you can’t even use water skis or an aquaplane while under the influence,” she continues. “I think the idea there is more for personal safety, but it’s also prohibited. So, basically, the safest thing is to not be operating drunk while out on the water.”

The Penalties for Boating While Intoxicated

The severity of boating while intoxicated penalties will vary based on a number of different factors.

Most notably, defendants will face more severe punishment if they have already been convicted of a similar offense in the past. Further, if the intoxicated boater is deemed to have contributed to another person’s injury, they will face heightened penalties—potentially including prison time.

In Wisconsin, where Wood practices, “Boating law, weirdly, doesn’t affect your driver’s license,” she says. “It’s like a first offense of drunk driving without the license part. However, a second offense in boating law will carry jail time.”

In other states, both your boating and driver’s license may be suspended following a BUI conviction.

Get a Criminal Defense Lawyer if You’re Facing BUI Charges

Defendants should be ready to take action to protect their rights. If you have been arrested and charged with drunk boating, the best course of action is to contact an experienced DUI defense attorney in your area as soon as possible.

If you’d like more general information about this area of law, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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