Navigating Boating Under The Influence Charges In Tennessee

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Police boat out on water

Tennessee’s lakes are a popular spot during the warmer seasons. Each year, thousands of people take boats out on the water, enjoying the sunshine, gentle waves, and scenic beauty Tennessee has to offer. But what do you do if the flashing lights of a police watercraft pulls up behind you, turning your beautiful day into a legal nightmare?

While boating is a cherished pastime for many in Tennessee, many casual boaters are unaware that operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol can lead to significant legal consequences. Just like driving a car, boating under the influence (BUI) is taken very seriously by Tennessee law enforcement and can result in life-altering repercussions for the accused.

In this blog, we’ll dive deep into what constitutes BUI, the potential consequences, and how to stay safe and legal while enjoying Tennessee’s beautiful waterways. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge you need to ensure your boating experiences are memorable for all the right reasons.

What Is Boating Under The Influence?

BUI occurs when a person operates any vessel subject to registration or any commercial vessel on public waters while impaired by alcohol or drugs. The legal threshold for impairment mirrors that of driving a car: a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher.

However, BUI isn’t limited to alcohol. The law also covers impairment due to drugs, whether they are prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, or illegal substances. Even if your BAC is below 0.08%, you can still be charged with BUI if law enforcement believes your ability to operate the boat is impaired.

It’s crucial to understand that Tennessee’s BUI laws apply specifically to vessels that are required to be registered and commercial vessels. This includes motorized boats and jet skis. While non-motorized vessels like canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards may not fall under this statute, it is always best to avoid operating any vessel while under the influence to ensure safety and compliance with all regulations.

Law enforcement officers have the authority to stop and inspect your boat if they suspect you are under the influence. They may conduct field sobriety tests and require a breathalyzer test. This is part of their duty to enforce boating laws and ensure that all watercraft operators are fit to pilot their vessels safely. Field sobriety tests should not be conducted on the boat, although plenty of officers have done so, because that would effect the results of those tests including the “eye test” known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus.

What Is The Penalty For Boating Under The Influence In Tennessee?

Much like a DUI, the consequences of being convicted of boating under the influence in Tennessee are severe and far-reaching:

  • Fines and Penalties: Expect significant fines that can strain your finances. First-time offenders may face fines up to $2,500, and these increase with subsequent offenses.
  • Jail Time: A BUI conviction isn’t just a slap on the wrist. First-time offenders can face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, with longer sentences for repeat offenders.
      • Similar to DUI, BUI has a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 48 hours. This is why it is imperative to have the best DUI lawyer in East Tennessee represent you and review your case to get the best result possible in your case.
  • Suspension of Boating Privileges: A BUI can result in the suspension of your boating license, making it illegal for you to operate any vessel on the water.
  • Criminal Record: A BUI conviction will go on your criminal record, potentially affecting job prospects, background checks, and even your insurance rates.
    • However, unlike DUI, BUI is judicial diversion eligible meaning the charge can be dismissed even with a guilty plea under a judicial diversion after the completion of the mandatory 48 hour minimum. 
  • Insurance Hikes: Similarly to a DUI, a BUI can cause your insurance premiums to skyrocket, adding another financial burden.

What To Do After Being Charged With Boating Under The Influence

Facing a BUI charge is a shock to many, but knowing the right steps to take can make a significant difference in your case. Here’s what you should do if you’re charged with boating under the influence in Tennessee:

  • Remain Calm and Polite: When approached by law enforcement, it is essential to stay calm and be polite. Cooperate with the officers and avoid any confrontational behavior. Arguing or resisting can make your situation even worse, potentially resulting in additional charges and making it difficult to achieve a positive outcome in your case. 
  • Document Everything: As soon as possible, write down everything you remember about the incident. Include details about the stop, the tests performed, and any interactions with law enforcement. This information can be valuable for your defense.
  • Exercise Your Rights: You have the right to remain silent and the right to legal representation. Politely decline to answer any questions that could incriminate you. Do not provide any statements that can be used against you later.
  • Contact a Lawyer Immediately: Time is of the essence. Reach out to a knowledgeable attorney who specializes in BUI cases. At Barnes & Fersten, our experienced legal team can help you understand your rights, guide you through the legal process, and build a strong defense strategy on your behalf.
  • Follow Legal Advice: Once you have legal representation, follow their advice closely. They will guide you through the legal proceedings and help you make informed decisions every step of the way.

Getting a BUI charge doesn’t have to define your future. With the right approach and experienced legal assistance, you can navigate these legal waters and work towards the best possible outcome.

Stay Afloat: Tips to Avoid a Boating Under the Influence Charge

Stay safe and legal with these simple tips to avoid a boating under the influence charge:

  • Designate a Sober Operator: Just like with driving, the best way to avoid a BUI is to designate a sober operator. Make sure someone responsible and alcohol-free is at the helm.
  • Limit Alcohol Consumption: If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Be mindful of how alcohol affects your coordination and judgment and avoid operating the boat if you’ve been drinking.
  • Understand Tennessee Boating Laws: Familiarize yourself with Tennessee’s boating laws. Knowledge is power—knowing the legal limits and regulations can help you stay compliant and avoid unintentional violations.
    • Similar to driving, an officer must have a legal reason to approach your boat. As such, our lawyers routinely question the reason for a stop to suppress and dismiss a BUI case.
  • Use Safety Equipment: Ensure your boat is equipped with necessary safety gear, including life jackets for all passengers. Not only is this required by law, but it also promotes a culture of safety and responsibility on the water.
    • Far too often the lack of safety equipment or a safety equipment check is the reason an officer uses for a “valid” stop. As such, it is important to have all your safety gear readily available and in use when you see an officer to prevent an officer from using a “safety check” as a legal reason for a stop that may end up in a BUI arrest.
  • Plan Ahead: Before you head out, plan your trip and make sure everyone on board knows the plan. Having a clear idea of where you’re going and how long you’ll be on the water can help you manage your activities and alcohol consumption better.
  • Stay Hydrated and Eat Well: Alcohol can dehydrate you faster when you’re out in the sun. Drink plenty of water and have snacks on board to keep your energy up and your mind clear.
  • Educate Your Crew: Make sure everyone on board understands the importance of boating sober and the potential consequences of BUI. A well-informed crew is a safer crew.

By following these tips, you can enjoy your time on the water without the risk of legal trouble. Remember, a little caution goes a long way in ensuring a fun and safe boating experience for everyone.

Barnes & Fersten’s Knoxville Lawyers Can Help With BUI Charges

A boating under the influence charge is a sudden and stressful experience, but there are ways out of these troubled waters. Barnes & Fersten can offer dedicated legal support to those accused of BUI. With a deep knowledge of Tennessee’s criminal defense landscape and a proven track record of success, we’re equipped to guide you through every step of the process.

If you or a loved one are facing a BUI charge, let Barnes & Fersten be your anchor. Contact us today for a free consultation and ensure that your boating memories remain joyful and stress-free.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.