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

This and other Wisconsin laws related to boating while intoxicated

Somehow a rumor has spread over the years among Wisconsin boaters that one cannot receive a DUI if they’re using a trolling motor as opposed to an inboard/outboard. 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. “A trolling motor is still a motor, and in Wisconsin drunk driving law, anything with a motor—even a moped or scooter—you can’t operate it while under the influence over a certain limit.”

The size of a boat’s engine is simply not a relevant factor—at least for the purposes of state DUI laws. Under Wisconsin law, 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.

The Legal Limits and Field Sobriety Tests on a Boat

In Wisconsin, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit 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 a boating while intoxicated offense. Please note that the maximum allowable BAC level is lower for the operators of commercial vessels. If you are operating a commercial motorboat in Wisconsin, you can be charged with a DUI if your BAC level is 0.04 or higher. If THC is detected after a blood test, that is also prohibited.

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

Every motorboat operator in Wisconsin has already given law enforcement the authorization to conduct a breath, blood, or urine test. This is because Wisconsin has an implied consent law for boating. It is very similar to the state’s implied consent law for operating a motor vehicle in a public road. If you are arrested for a boating DUI and you refuse to provide a breath, blood, urine sample, you can be charged with a crime.

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 a Boating While Intoxicated

In Wisconsin, the severity of boating while intoxicated penalties will vary based on a number of different factors. Most notably, defendants will face a more severe punishment if they have already been convicted of a similar offense in the past.

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

There are consequences, depending on the number offense, that can prohibit you from using your boat. Further, if the intoxicated boater is deemed to have contributed to another person’s injury, they will face heightened penalties—potentially including prison time.

Defendants should be ready to take action to protect their rights. If you or your loved one was arrested and charged with drunk boating, you should contact an experienced Wisconsin DUI defense attorney right away. If you'd like more general information about this area of the law, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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