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Texas Alcohol Laws: What You Need to Know About Boating While Intoxicated

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Most Texans understand the dangers and potential punishments associated with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (DWI), but many don’t know it’s illegal to drink alcohol or use drugs when boating. In Texas, operating a boat or water vessel when under the influence of alcohol or other mind-altering substances can mean facing harsh criminal penalties.

This post focuses on what you need to know about boating while intoxicated (BWI) in Texas:

Is It Illegal to Operate a Boat While Intoxicated?

Yes. Don’t boat after drinking alcohol or using drugs in Texas. The law refers to:

  • A watercraft according to the Texas Penal Code is 1) a vessel, 2) at least one water ski, aquaplane, or 3) other device or craft used to transport or carry a person on the water (other than in a device “propelled only…by current of water”). [Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 49.01(4) (2016)]
  • The operator of a boat, sailboard, sailboat, water skis, or similar may be charged with BWI in Texas. A driver or operator may not operate a watercraft with a blood alcohol level (BAC) greater than 0.08 percent. The BAC for BWI is the same as DWI in Texas.

Note that carrying an open alcohol container on a watercraft is legal.

Have you or a loved one been charged with a BWI?
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Can You Be Arrested for Boating While Intoxicated?

Yes. Just like a law enforcement officer has the ability to arrest you if he or she observes behavior like poor coordination, balance, or slower than normal reaction times, you can be arrested for a suspected boating while intoxicated offense.

Under Tex. Penal Code Ann. §§ 49.01(2), 49.06 (2016), a law enforcement officer can arrest a boat operator if he or she observes you’re impaired by either alcohol or drugs and that you don’t have “normal” use of physical or mental faculties. A breath, blood, or urine alcohol test showing BAC of 0.08 percent or more is considered confirmation of the operator’s boating while impaired.

If convicted of a BWI, you face a misdemeanor charge for a first offense, or up to a maximum $2,000 fine, a minimum 72-hour to a 180-day maximum jail term, or both.

However, if the accident in which you were involved in caused serious bodily injury to another person, it may be considered intoxication assault:

  • In that case, you may face third-degree felony charges. You face a minimum two-year to a maximum 10-year prison sentence and a maximum $10,000 fine.
  • If the accident resulted in death, it may be considered intoxication manslaughter. In that case, you face a minimum or two years to a maximum of 20 years in prison plus a $10,000 fine.
  • If a victim suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that resulted in his or her persistent vegetative state, or if the victim was an emergency medic, peace officer, or firefighter in the line of duty, penalties may be further enhanced [Tex. Penal Code Ann. §§ 12.22, 12.33, 12.34, 49.06 (2016)].

If you’re convicted of a second offense, you face up to 12 months behind bars and a maximum $4,000 fine (a class A misdemeanor) [Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 12.21 (2016)].

If you’re convicted of a third offense, you’ll face a minimum two-year to a maximum 10-year prison sentence plus a maximum $10,000 fine (a third-degree felony).

Know that additional penalties may apply [Tex. Penal Code Ann. §§ 49.06, 49.07, 49.08, 49.09 (2016)], depending on several factors such as:

  • Whether the operator has a prior BWI or DWI conviction(s)—either a BWI or DWI will count as a prior offense
  • If the operator caused serious bodily injury or was involved in an accident that caused death to another party

How much jail time would I face if convicted of BWI in Texas?

Because sentencing laws are complex, it’s difficult to predict. Many factors affect actual punishments, including jail-alternative work programs or good in-custody behaviors.

An experienced criminal defense attorney may positively affect the outcome of your case. Because he has command of your jurisdiction rules, he can best explain the law as it may apply to your situation.

Can I lose my driver’s license if I’m convicted of a BWI?

Yes. Boating while intoxicated may have an immediate impact on your driver’s license. If you’re arrested and don’t submit to field sobriety tests, you face immediate driver’s license suspension. You may also receive points on your driver’s license.

For a first-time offense, you’ll potentially face an automatic 180-day driver’s license suspension. Your license will be automatically suspended if you were operating a personal watercraft (PWC) or a boat with an engine of at least 50-horsepower. If you had a drug or alcohol-related driver’s license suspension over the past 10-year period, the suspension period may range up to one year. [Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 524.022(a) (2016)]

Note that you aren’t required to submit to a law enforcement officer’s request for breath or blood tests if you’re suspected of BWI in Texas. To obtain your specimen at that point, the officer must obtain a search warrant signed by a judge.

Understand that you have the right to refuse field testing. However, you may face harsh penalties if you’re convicted of a BWI offense. For that reason, you need a knowledgeable BWI/DWI lawyer to protect your legal rights as soon as possible.

How Can I Avoid Getting into Legal Trouble on the Water?

The policing of Texas’s waterways is exceptionally aggressive. It’s a bad idea to drink or use drugs before operating a motor vehicle, boat, or personal watercraft. Avoid drinking or using prescription medicines or illegal substances before getting behind the wheel.

If you’ve had an alcoholic beverage, wait until you’re sober to operate the vessel or ask another person who’s qualified and sober to do so.

What do I need to know about boating certifications in Texas?

Know the rules.

If you were born after September 1, 1993, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says you’re required to complete the Boater Education Course to operate a boat with a minimum 15-HP engine, a wind-blown vessel (such as a sailboat) over 14-feet in length, or a personal watercraft. You must be certified to operate any of these vessels alone. Even if you were born before September 1, 1993, you may be required to take the course if you violate the Water Safety Act.

You must be at least 18 years old to legally operate a motorboat if you’re on board the boat. Individuals aged 13 or older can enroll in the boater education course. It’s possible to take the boater course online.

If certified, individuals at least 13 years old can operate a minimum 15-HP engine or wind-blown vessel greater than 14-feet long. Those under 13 years old can’t operate a PWC unless an individual at least 18 years old is on board.

Before getting behind the wheel, it’s important to carry identification. Under Texas law, the operator must carry his or her boater certification card plus another valid government-issued ID.

Contact an Experienced Boating While Intoxicated Lawyer

BWI law in Texas is complicated. If you or someone you care about has been arrested for BWI, you need an experienced BWI attorney. Brett Podolsky, a board-certified criminal lawyer and former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the state of Texas, has the experience you need. He can provide you with the complete picture of how Texas law applies to your case. Contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky to schedule an initial case evaluation.

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