Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Charges in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC is a boater’s paradise – whether you are relaxing in the harbor, fishing, or taking a cruise offshore, everyday Charleston’s waters are filled with yachts, motorboats, sailboats, johnboats, and smaller recreational vessels – and DNR officers are on the water looking for people who have had a few too many or who are not operating safely.

South Carolina’s boating under the influence (BUI) laws are similar to SC DUI laws, with a few important differences.

What is BUI in SC, how is it different than driving under the influence (DUI) charges, and what are some other common charges that boaters in Charleston, SC face?

Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Charges Have Different Defenses Than DUI Charges in SC

SC’s DUI laws are unique in that they require videotaping of the arrest, field sobriety tests, and breath testing procedure. Because these provisions are mandatory, a failure to follow the law by the arresting officer results in dismissal of the DUI – there are no such requirements for BUI in SC, however.

Because BUI arrests are often made on the water or at the dock, there is usually no dashcam on a patrol car. With SC’s 2016 requirement that all officers wear bodycams, we could require videotaping for BUIs, but, for now, we do not.

Although DNR officers usually use a modified test battery for field sobriety tests in boating under the influence cases, there may be a common-sense argument that FSTs are unreliable when they are conducted on a floating vessel or on a dock shortly after someone has stepped off a floating vessel…

What is Boating Under the Influence (BUI) in SC?

The elements of BUI that the state must prove are similar to those for DUI. It is illegal to:

  1. Operate a moving water device;
  2. That is motorized or under sail;
  3. While under the influence of alcohol or other drugs;
  4. To the extent that your faculties to operate are materially and appreciably impaired.

Although SC’s BUI law says “operating” instead of “driving,” it’s still not enough to be sitting on your boat listening to the radio or “operating” other equipment while intoxicated – the law specifies that the vessel must be moving

If there is no evidence that the boat was moving, it’s not BUI and your case should be dismissed, or a directed verdict granted at trial.

SC’s BUI law specifically applies to water vessels that are motorized or under sail – excluding boats that are propelled by paddle or oars like canoes, kayaks, or non-motorized johnboats.

What are the Penalties for BUI in SC?

The penalties for BUI are simpler than the penalties for DUI in SC, but they can be harsh:

  • First offense BUI: a 48-hour mandatory minimum sentence and up to 30 days in jail;
  • Second offense BUI: a 48-hour mandatory minimum sentence and up to one year in prison;
  • Third offense BUI: a 60-day mandatory minimum and up to three years in prison.

Penalties also include significant fines that cannot be suspended in some cases, suspension of the person’s privilege to operate watercraft, completion of the alcohol and drug safety action program (ADSAP), and completion of a boating safety class.

Felony Boating Under the Influence (Felony BUI) in SC

When a person: 1) Is in control of a moving water vessel; 2) Is under the influence of alcohol or drugs; and 3) Causes great bodily injury or death, they will be charged with felony BUI.

When great bodily injury results from the accident, the penalties include imprisonment for no less than 30 days and up to 15 years in prison.

When death results from the accident, the penalties include no less than one year and up to 25 years in prison.

BUI with Property Damage in SC

When a person is operating under the influence and it results in property damage only, that is a separate offense that is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and suspension of operating privileges.

Implied Consent for Boating Under the Influence?

Like SC’s DUI laws, SC’s BUI laws also include an implied consent statute – if you are operating a watercraft in SC waters, you “impliedly consent” to give a breath or blood sample for alcohol testing.

If you refuse, your privilege to operate watercraft is automatically suspended for 180 days, but, as in DUI cases, we can immediately request an administrative, implied consent hearing and challenge the suspension.

Reckless, Careless, or Negligent Operation of Watercraft in SC

South Carolina also has criminal charges for negligent or reckless operation of water devices in SC, regardless of whether the person was intoxicated. These charges include negligent operation, reckless operation, and reckless homicide.

Negligent Operation of Water Devices

Negligent operation is a misdemeanor that carries up to 30 days in jail, and includes conduct like:

  • Operating faster than idle speed in a no-wake zone;
  • Failing to maintain a lookout for other boats or persons;
  • Operating too fast for conditions;
  • Racing; or
  • Pulling a skier through a designated swimming area.

Reckless Operation of Water Devices

Reckless operation also carries a maximum of 30 days in jail. It covers situations where a boat’s operator shows a “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property,” including:

  • Weaving through congested traffic at more than idle speed;
  • “Jumping” the wake of another vessel;
  • Crossing the path or wake of another vessel when visibility is limited; or
  • Maintaining a collision course with another vessel and turning away at the last minute.

Reckless Homicide by Operation of Boat

If someone dies as a result of operation of a boat “in reckless disregard of the safety of others,” the operator can be charged with reckless homicide and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Reckless homicide does not require a “criminal intent,” or the intent to harm someone – it requires only proof of “criminal negligence.”

Other charges that can result from deaths on the water where criminal intent is required include:

Charleston, SC Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Lawyer

Charleston, SC, criminal defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone focuses his law practice on state and federal criminal cases, including boating under the influence (BUI) and felony BUI charges in Charleston.

If you’ve been charged with BUI, felony BUI, or any criminal offense on the water in the Charleston or Myrtle Beach areas, call now at (843) 808-2100 or message us with our contact form to talk to a Charleston DUI and BUI attorney today.


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