It is illegal in Massachusetts to operate any sort of watercraft (jet ski, canoe, kayak, sailboat, rowboat) while impaired by alcohol—not just engine-powered yachts and speedboats. Harbor/Marine Patrol, the Coast Guard, and the Massachusetts Environmental Police all have the authority to arrest you for OUI on a boat, which is sometimes called “Boating Under the Influence of drugs and alcohol” (BUI).
BUI carries similar penalties to the OUI laws in Massachusetts for driving a motor vehicle—in other words, some of the strictest in the nation. The legal limit for Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) in both cases is .08%, and arrests typically involve a combination of officer observations, field sobriety tests (though these are seated on a boat), and breath tests.
You may be wondering, ‘can you drink on a boat if you’re not driving?’ The short answer is yes, it is not illegal for passengers at least 21 years of age to drink alcohol on the boat. Only persons operating the vessel must remain below the BAC limit, for their safety and everyone else’s. However, the presence of alcohol on the boat can never help your defense in a BUI case.
All boats are subject to at-will “safety inspections” under Massachusetts law, so an officer does not need reasonable suspicion to stop your boat or request to board it for inspection. They would, however, need to develop probable cause during this inspection to arrest you for BUI.
Penalties for BUI in Massachusetts
Much like with drunk driving charges, your history affects the consequences you can face for BUI. Unlike drunk driving, the maximum “look back” period for drunk boating is 6 or 10 years depending on the offense (not lifetime).
- 1st Offense: Max of 2.5 years in jail, $1000 fine, and 1-year Mass driver’s license and boat certificate revocations
- 2nd Offense (within 6 years):14 days to 2.5 years in jail, $300 - $1,000 fine, 2-year Mass driver’s license/boat certificate revocation
- 3rd Offense (within 6 years): 6 months to 2.5 years in jail, $500 - $1,000 fine, 5-year Mass driver’s license/boat certificate revocation
- 4th Offense (within 10 years): 1-10 years in jail, $500 - $1,000 fine, even longer license/boat certificate revocation
- 5th Offense (within 10 years): 2-10 years in jail, $1,000 - $1,500 fine, even longer license/boat certificate revocation
Furthermore, refusing a breathalyzer test (or other BAC test) when arrested for BUI will result in an automatic 120-day suspension of your Massachusetts driver’s license—and a probable revocation of your vessel’s registration for a similar period.
BUI is more than a traffic ticket. It’s a criminal offense that can go on your criminal and driving records if you are found guilty in court. The consequences can be increased for various circumstances in your case, just like with drunk driving:
- Operating a water vessel like a boat or jet ski while drunk with a young passenger aboard can result in child endangerment charges, just like in a car or when charged with a DUI on a motorcycle.
- BUI causing severe bodily injury can lead to a jail sentence of 1 month to 2.5 years and/or $3000+ in fines. If you’re found to have acted recklessly or negligently, this increases to 6 months to 10 years and up to $5,000 in fines. You will also potentially lose your license and boat certificate for 2 years.
- BUI causing someone’s death can result in 1-15 years in jail and a loss of license/boat registration for 10 years.
Contact an Attorney Right Away
If you’ve been arrested for BUI, you should reach out to find legal representation with an experienced OUI attorney in Massachusetts immediately. BUI is similar to OUI under Massachusetts law, but there are significant differences that will require expert guidance to navigate as you prepare your defense.