The Tampa area, and Florida in general, is known worldwide for its beautiful waterways and boating activities. Sometimes, though, fun in the sun can get out of hand when boat operators take the wheel while intoxicated. According to the United States Coast Guard, alcohol use is one of the leading causes of boating accidents in the U.S., and is the #1 cause of death among boaters. A fun day out on the water can quickly turn tragic when alcohol is involved.

In addition to the risk of injury or death, boaters face legal and criminal consequences for boating while impaired. Even though they are not driving a vehicle on the road, they are still operating heavy machinery that can be dangerous or deadly when not handled properly. In Florida, boaters can be charged with Boating Under the Influence, a charge similar to Driving Under the Influence.

Penalties for boating under the influence in Florida will vary based on the circumstances, and if it is a first offense or subsequent conviction. A first offense may involve jail time up to 6 months, and a fine up to $1,000.00. Other offenses can bring higher stakes, and even felony charges if it is a third offense committed within 10 years of a prior conviction for boating under the influence.

Florida’s laws on boating under the influence are described within Florida Statutes, Sec. 327.35. These provisions are similar to Florida’s laws on DUI, and make it a crime to operate a vessel while intoxicated past a minimal threshold level. A “vessel” under Florida law is any watercraft, barge, airboat, or any other equipment capable of being used as a means of transportation. (See State v. Davis, 110 So. 3d 27, Fla.2d DCA 2013).

To prove the crime of boating under the influence in Florida, the State must prove:

  1. The Defendant operated a vessel;
  2. While operating the vessel, the Defendant was either:
    • Under the influence to the point where their “normal faculties” were impaired; or
    • Their blood-alcohol content was .08 or higher.

Potential Defenses to a Charge of Boating Under the Influence in Florida

A charge of boating under the influence isn’t always as clear-cut as it seems. The State must prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, and there may be evidentiary issues or defenses a person may have against the charge.

For example:

  1. Defendant was not “operating” the vessel. Prosecutors must first prove that the defendant was behind the wheel and operating the watercraft. For this, they would likely need eyewitness testimony or other evidence putting the defendant behind the wheel while they were impaired by alcohol. It is not enough to show that they were merely on the boat or could have been operating the wheel.
  2. Defendant was not impaired or under the influence. The statute requires a showing that the boat operator was intoxicated or that their “normal faculties were impaired” by alcohol. However, it can be difficult for law enforcement to prove this if the boat was out on the water and they are left only with circumstantial evidence or witness statements. Also, there may be a lapse in time between when a person operated a boat and when they were breathalyzed. (If they consumed any alcohol in between, for example, they would show impairment but that level might not be what it was as they were driving the boat.)
  3. Defendant was not operating a “vessel” within the meaning of the law. Florida’s law on boating under the influence pertains to the use of watercrafts, barges, airboats, and anything that could be used as a “means of transportation” on the water. If the defendant was using a paddleboat, raft, canoe, or other floating equipment, is that a “vessel” within the meaning of the law? They could argue it was not, and persuade a jury to agree with them on that issue. 

Our Tampa Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Represent You if You Have Been Charged with Boating Under the Influence 

If you have been charged with the crime of boating under the influence under Florida law, our Tampa criminal defense attorneys at Trombley & Hanes may be able to help. While boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a serious crime, it is also not uncommon for someone to be charged when they were actually innocent. We will carefully review the State’s evidence and evaluate the facts of the case to determine your best course of action in the legal proceeding. In some cases, we may also be able to negotiate a reduced charge, or even a dismissal of your case. Call our office at 813-229-7918, or complete an online questionnaire to get started.