Can you get a DWI on a boat?

It is common knowledge you are caught driving drunk you can get hit with a driving while impaired charge. But can you get a DWI in a boat? A boat is a vehicle of sorts. And it seems at least equally as dangerous to drive a boat while impaired as it is to drive a car while impaired. But the DWI statute applies only to roads, and boats do not go on roads under their own power. So, North Carolina’s DWI statute does not apply to driving a boat while impaired. Huh.

Driving a boat while drunk is criminalized in North Carolina’s Boating Safety Act, codified in Chapter 75A of our General Statutes. The language is similar – no person shall operate any vessel while underway on the waters of this State (1) while subject to an impairing substance, or (2) has a BAC of .08 or more at a relevant time after consuming alcohol. But the investigation and arrest are very different.

Investigating a BWI is problematic. The person is often standing in a boat subject to waves, swells, wakes, and currents pushing the boat and its occupants all over the place. How are you going to walk a straight line on a boat? You can’t! The field sobriety tests used when one is on a boat are not validated, meaning they have no statistical connection to proving impairment. That’s problematic for the prosecutor. If you are arrested on land, then the BWI case analysis closer parallels a normal DWI defense.

Punishment for a BWI conviction is much more lenient than a DWI conviction, with a caveat. A BWI is a class 2 misdemeanor, with a fine of a minimum of $250 on top of any other punishment imposed (more on this). DMV does not suspend your driver license, because a BWI charge is not subject to the Motor Vehicle laws that suspend a driver license. A substance abuse assessment and community service are imposed under DWI sentencing, but they are not mandatory under BWI sentencing. Now, as a class 2 misdemeanor, depending on your record, a judge can impose conditions of probation such as a substance abuse assessment and community service. If a person’s record is bad enough, a judge can impose an active jail sentence for a first BWI offense. In DWI sentencing, jail time is usually not imposed unless there are prior DWI convictions.

So yes, you can be charged with driving a boat drunk, but it is not a DWI, its boating while impaired.

One last interesting nugget from the statute:

No person shall manipulate any water skis, surfboard, nonmotorized vessel, or similar device on the waters of this State while under the influence of an impairing substance.

You read that right. Can’t water ski while drunk either. Maybe for the best.