Criminal Defense and Title IX
Attorneys Austin, TX

Can You Be Charged with DWI on a Boat in Texas?

In Texas, Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) is a serious offense

Texas is one of the top 10 states for boating in the U.S. The freedom of being on open water has led to the registration of more than 567,000 watercraft in the state. Despite Texas’s popularity for boating, people may unexpectedly find themselves facing Boating While Intoxicated charges, emphasizing the need for understanding and fair treatment within the legal system.

Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) is a serious offense in Texas, with legal consequences like those for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) on the road. A successful BWI defense is more than possible with the right attorney.

For example, in a recent case, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department investigator accused a well-known lawyer represented by Attorney Brian Roark of leaving the scene of a crash after allegedly drinking at a dinner party.

However, Roark collected sworn affidavits from 17 colleagues testifying that the boat operator was not intoxicated at any point during the evening. As a result, the case was dismissed by a Travis County District Judge, citing “in the interests of justice,” effectively clearing the lawyer of the false accusation made by the game warden.

Facing criminal charges can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming. Hiring an experienced Texas BWI and DWI criminal defense lawyer can provide those accused with the knowledge and experience to aggressively protect their rights and freedom.

Texas BWI factors

Texas Penal Code §49.06 prohibits operating a watercraft while intoxicated. This includes motorized vessels such as pontoons, jet skis, personal watercraft, open motorboats, houseboats, airboats, yachts, and sailboats over 14 feet in length, as well as other vessels. BWI is usually a Class B misdemeanor with a minimum term of confinement of 72 hours. However, if there is a passenger younger than age 15 aboard, a BWI charge can rise to BWI with Child Passenger – a state jail felony with harsher penalties.

An officer does NOT have to have probable cause to pull over a boat driver in Texas. They can simply pull a boat over for a safety check and then initiate a DWI investigation if they see alcohol (beer cans, etc.) or smell it on the boat operator’s breath.

In Texas, a person is considered intoxicated if they lack normal use of mental or physical faculties due to the consumption of alcohol, drugs, or a combination thereof, or if their blood alcohol concentration while operating a motor vehicle or, in this case, vessel. Typically, factors in a Texas BWI charge include:

  • Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). Just like with DWI cases, law enforcement officers may administer breath or blood tests to determine a boater’s BAC. In Texas, the legal limit for BWI is the same as for DWI, which is 0.08%.
  • Observable impairment. Even if a boater’s BAC is below the legal limit, they can still be charged with BWI if an officer interprets signs of impairment. For example, allegations of slurred speech, unsteady movement, or impaired judgment may be used to justify a BWI charge.
  • Field Sobriety Tests. Similar to DWI cases, officers may conduct field sobriety tests on suspected intoxicated boaters to assess their level of impairment.

Who can make a BWI arrest?

Boating arrests in Texas can be made by various law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over the state’s waterways. In Austin and Travis County, the primary boating destinations are lakes – especially Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake. These are usually patrolled by game wardens. Here are the primary entities responsible for making boating arrests in Texas:

  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPWD is the primary agency responsible for enforcing boating laws and regulations on Texas water bodies, including lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. TPWD game wardens have the authority to stop, investigate, and arrest individuals suspected of violating boating laws, including BWI.
  • Local Law Enforcement Agencies. In addition to TPWD game wardens, local law enforcement agencies, such as county sheriff’s offices and municipal police departments, may also have jurisdiction over certain water bodies.
  • Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS officers, including state troopers, may also have jurisdiction over waterways and may be involved in enforcing boating laws, particularly on navigable rivers and water bodies that intersect with roadways.
  • United States Coast Guard. In cases involving federal waterways or maritime law violations, the USCG may be involved in boating law enforcement, particularly along the Gulf Coast and border waterways.

Common BWI situations

There are about 220 boating accidents reported in Texas every year – only Florida reports more watercraft crashes in the U.S. Boaters involved in accidents may be investigated by Texas law enforcement – especially if the crash results in injuries or death. Officers are looking for a reason to make a charge – if any alcohol was consumed during the day, a BWI charge is possible. But boating incidents leading to BWI charges can involve:

  • Inaccurate testing. Despite appearing sober, an individual can be wrongly charged with BWI due to inaccurate or faulty breathalyzer or BAC testing equipment, which fails to provide reliable results. There are many outside factors that can influence BAC test results. Consuming certain foods, for example, can potentially lead to a false BAC test result due to residual substances that may mimic alcohol in the breath.
  • Unfounded suspicion. Law enforcement officers may wrongfully suspect a boater of intoxication based on subjective observations or biased assumptions.
  • Environmental factors. External factors such as sun exposure, dehydration, or motion sickness can contribute to symptoms mistaken for intoxication.
  • A coerced confession. Law enforcement officers may coerce a confession or manipulate statements from a boater, leading to unjustified BWI charges based on unreliable or unlawfully obtained evidence.
  • A medical emergency. Law enforcement officers may incorrectly perceive a sober boat operator’s medical condition or emergency as intoxication.
  • Boat malfunction. A manufacturing or maintenance defect could result in a crash. If any alcohol was consumed that day, an officer may wrongly assume any malfunction is an error due to intoxication.

Texas BWI defense strategies

Being accused of BWI can make a person feel powerless, but hiring a criminal defense lawyer can empower them to take control of their situation and actively mount a strong defense. Just as with DWI cases, individuals charged with BWI have the right to defend themselves. Some common legal defenses for BWI charges in Texas include:

  • Challenging the validity of BAC tests
  • Questioning the legality of the arrest
  • Presenting evidence of sobriety or minimal impairment
  • Contesting the results of field sobriety tests

Avoiding BWI consequences

It’s essential to consult with a Texas attorney with BWI experience to explore the best defense strategy based on the specific circumstances of the case. Navigating the criminal justice system without legal representation can be risky, as people charged with BWI may inadvertently make mistakes or say something that could harm their cases. Consequences of a BWI conviction in Texas can be severe and may include:

  • Fines
  • Jail time
  • Suspension of boating privileges
  • Mandatory alcohol education programs
  • Increased insurance premiums
  • Criminal record

Additionally, if a boating accident results in injury or death, the consequences can be even more serious, potentially leading to felony charges and a lengthy prison sentence. BWI criminal defense lawyers protect people facing charges from potential legal pitfalls by advising them on how to interact with law enforcement, guiding them through court proceedings, and advocating on their behalf to ensure their rights are upheld.

If you’ve been charged with boating while intoxicated in Texas, contact Botsford & Roark for a confidential, free case evaluation. Our experienced DWI and BWI attorneys have the resources, knowledge, and time-tested defense strategies to thoroughly fight boating while intoxicated charges while protecting your future and reputation.

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