Texas is strict when it comes to law enforcement – and boating laws are no exception.
Texas has more square miles of inland water than any other state. But the larger number of lakes and gulfs also doubles the risk of boating accidents – especially when there’s booze involved.
From alcohol restrictions to potential penalties – here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about drinking and boating in the Lone Star State.
Can You Drink On A Boat In Texas?
If you’re a passenger – YES, it’s perfectly legal to drink on a boat.
If you’re the operator – NO, it’s illegal to drive a boat when drunk.
Driving a boat while intoxicated, more properly termed as a BUI (BOATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE), is punished as a crime in several states. Although it is considered as a misdemeanor, it is a charge that Texas law enforcement agencies take very seriously, and the penalties are just as severe as a regular DUI charge.
The Dangers Of BUI: Why Is It Illegal?
The probability of being killed in a boating accident doubles when alcohol is involved.
In 2019, Texas game wardens issued almost 200 boating while intoxicated citations across the state – and the number seems to be increasing year after year. Alcohol use was found to be the leading factor in boating accidents, both fatal and non-fatal.
Boater’s Fatigue And Alcohol
According to the US Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics Report, being on a boat is likely to accelerate the impairment and loss of mental facilities – a condition that is known as “_Boater’s Fatigue_.”
It is caused by a combination of the motion and vibrations of the boat, as well as external stressors like the wind, sun and noise. These impairments greatly affect judgment, vision, balance and coordination – tripling the effects of the alcohol and making you feel drunker than you really are. It also slows down your swallowing and breathing reflexes, increasing the chances of drowning if you fall overboard.
This is why Texas laws require boat operators to stick to the same guidelines that apply to alcohol consumption when driving a car. The basic premise is always the same: _if you’re driving, don’t drink. _
Rules And Restrictions Governing The Texas Waterways
The main state law that penalizes BUI is SECTION 49.06 OF THE TEXAS PENAL CODE.
Under said Texas law, the offense of BUI is committed if the person is intoxicated while operating a watercraft. The same section defines the crime as a Class B misdemeanor and is punishable with a minimum term confinement of 72 hours.
Similar to BUI laws in other states, the Texas Penal Code punishes ONLY the driver or operator of a boat. This is because the term used in the statute is “_operating_”. So as long as you’re not the operator, drinking on board a boat is perfectly legal.
To fully understand the legal restrictions of drinking on a boat in Texas, here are a few important points to take note of:
1. Passengers Can Drink As Much As They Want And Will Never Be Charged With A BUI.
As explained above, only the boat operator can be charged with a BUI. So everyone other than him can drink on a boat. This is in line with the law’s intention that all boaters must assign a “designated driver” who stays sober during the entirety of the voyage.
2. A Boat Operator Is Deemed To Be “Intoxicated” If He Has A Blood Alcohol Concentration (Bac) Of 0.08% Or Higher
A person can be arrested for a BUI if his blood alcohol level is at or above the legal limit – the same principle that applies when you’re driving a car. Thus, even if you feel fine or don’t show any signs of drunkenness, you can still be prosecuted for the offense if the results of the breather test show a 0.08 or higher.
3. Even If The Blood Alcohol Level Is Less Than 0.08%, A Boat Operator Can Still Be Charged With A Bui If There Is A Loss Of The Normal Use Of Mental And Physical Faculties.
“Mental faculties” refers to the ability to think and respond clearly. This is often manifested by slurred or incoherent speech and slow verbal responses to the officer’s questions. While “Physical faculties” include poor motor skills, lack of balance and coordination.
In the last two ways, the determination of whether a BUI charge is necessary is entirely a judgment call on the part of the law enforcement officers. The law gives them a lot of leeway to determine what constitutes intoxication. Even watery or bloodshot eyes coupled with the smell of alcohol can be interpreted as a sign of intoxication.
The bottomline here is that there is technically no safe amount of alcohol that someone can drink when operating a boat – since you can still be charged even if you pass the breathalyzer test, when the officer finds signs that you are intoxicated.
4. If The Boat Operator Is Under The Age Of 21 And Intoxicated, He Will Automatically Be Arrested Even If His Blood Alcohol Level Is Below The Legal Limit.
Texas follows the “zero tolerance” rule which makes it absolutely illegal for a person less than 21 years of age to have even the smallest amount of alcohol concentration in their blood.
5. The “Open Container” Law Does Not Apply When On A Boat.
Texas’ “Open Container” Law prohibits the possession of any open container of alcohol in the car.
This doesn’t apply when on board a boat. Thus, you can open as many cans of beer as you like – but make sure the boat operator isn’t holding any.
6. You Can Be Charged With A BUI Even If You Are On A Canoe Or Even A Water Ski.
The Texas Penal Code defines “watercraft” as a vessel, one or more water skis, an aquaplane, or another device used for transporting or carrying a person on water. Thus, the law makes no distinction whether the vessel is motorized or not.
7. Your Driver’s License Can Be Suspended If You Are Arrested For A BUI.
Yes, the same license you use to drive your car.
Under Texas law, the suspension is automatic if the person arrested is:
- Operating a watercraft powered with an engine of 50 horsepower or above, and
- The person refuses to provide a specimen (breath or blood) to determine intoxication
For first time offenders, the usual period of suspension is 180 days.
8. If The Boat Operator Cannot Be Identified, The Boat Owner Or Renter Will Be The One Charged With A BUI.
The “boat operator” is the person who is in physical control of driving the boat. However, there are instances when it may be difficult to determine who the actual operator is — particularly when everyone on the boat denies accountability.
In such cases, it is the owner or renter of the boat who will be considered the operator and will subsequently be the one charged.
9. An Officer Can Legally Stop Your Boat To Perform A “Safety Check.”
This is a standard visual check, usually done to check if there are life jackets on the boat. But it’s also usual practice for the officer to likewise question boat operators to determine if they have consumed alcohol.
10. You May Be Requested To Submit To An Alcohol Breather Test And A Physical Sobriety Test.
The game warden has the right to request a handheld breath test to check blood alcohol levels in the body. Alternatively, he may also conduct “float tests” or standardized field sobriety tests which include a series of physical movements similar to “walk the line” tests when driving a car.
It is important to note that these tests are completely VOLUNTARY and may choose to refuse. But if you do, it could be a ground for suspension of your driver’s license for up to 180 days.
11. A Bui Charge Covers All Kinds Of Chemical And Controlled Substances – Legal Or Illegal.
Aside from alcoholic beverages, a charge for BUI can also be based on any kind of intoxicant that causes physical and mental impairment, like recreational drugs.
It can also include legal prescription medicines if it is determined as the cause for the boat operator’s impairment.
Penalties If Found Guilty
Even if classified as a Class B misdemeanor may still result in jail time.
The severity of penalties depends on a number of factors, including a previous BUI conviction.
- First offense – fine of up to $2000 and/or imprisonment of up to 180 days
- Second offense – fine of up to $4000 and/or imprisonment of up to 1 year
- Third offense – fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment between 2 to 10 years
The penalties will be higher if the boat operator has been previously involved in an accident causing serious injury or even death, or if the victim was a peace officer, firefighter or emergency medical personnel in the line of duty.
Enforcement Of Texas Boating Laws
When it comes to recreational boating in Texas, BUI charges are the primary responsibility of TEXAS GAME WARDENS OF THE PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT. They have the authority to arrest and issue citations, as well as conduct alcohol breather tests and routine safety checks on boats.
Marine Safety Enforcement Officers as well as the US Coast Guard likewise have the authority to enforce BUI laws when committed in US waterways.
Boating and drinking are always a dangerous combination.
Texas officials enforce BUI laws just as seriously as they do drunk driving laws. And since there is technically no safe amount of alcohol that you can drink while operating a boat – drinking and boating is a practice that is best to be avoided.