What Is Tiffany's Law? New York DWI Law Links Intoxicated Vehicle Offenses

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New York makes it illegal for anyone to operate a vessel in state waters while they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is termed boating while intoxicated (BWI) or boating while ability impaired (BWAI). As is the case with driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI) laws, the more prior offenses a person has, the more legal consequences a convicted boat operator will face.

For many years, the only offenses that counted as priors for a repeat BWI sentencing were prior BWIs. A judge could not consider other driving under the influence convictions, like violations of drunk driving laws that apply to cars, snowmobiles or ATVs. This changed in 2012, when Tiffany's Law became part of the New York statutes.

Tiffany's Law in New York

The bill approving Tiffany's Law was passed by the New York legislature and signed by the governor in 2012. It strengthened penalties for boating while intoxicated by linking BWI offenses to prior drunk driving offenses. Under Tiffany's Law, a court sentencing someone for boating while intoxicated must consider all prior driving while intoxicated convictions, including vehicles, snow mobiles and ATVs. Likewise, BWI convictions count as prior offenses for DWI sentencing.

To understand the impact of Tiffany's Law, it is necessary to have an overview of New York's boating while intoxicated laws and penalties for violating them.

Boating While Ability Impaired

Drinking while operating a boat is very dangerous, and the person operating the boat, the boat passengers and members of the community can be hurt or killed as a result. That is why New York has enacted Navigation Law 49-A and following sections making it illegal. It is reasonable to think of boating while intoxicated as DWI on the waterways in New York, since the BWI law is very similar to the state's DWI law.

Like the DWI laws, the BWI law has provisions addressing impairment. A person can be charged with operating a boat while their ability is impaired by alcohol (BWAI), drugs (drug-BWAI) or a combination of alcohol and drugs or two types of drugs (combination BWAI). This only requires proof of some impairment of ability. Substantial impairment leads to the more serious charge of boating while intoxicated.

Boating While Intoxicated

Someone caught drunk driving in New York can either be charged with general drunk driving or of driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or higher. The same is true for a boat operator.

Under the BWI statute, the operator can be charged with boating while intoxicated (BWI) if there is evidence that the boat operator's ability was substantially impaired by alcohol or drugs. They can also be charged with a "per se" BWI since it is illegal for a person to operate a boat in New York with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. For commercial boat operators, the legal BAC limit is 0.04 percent. A BAC of 0.18 percent or higher is classified as an aggravated BWI. This crime is called a per se BWI because if the above-the-limit BAC is established, no further proof of impairment or intoxication is required.

Penalties for BWI in New York

New York law has three categories of crimes: violations/infractions, misdemeanors and felonies. All three types can result in a fine, but the possible time in jail varies and determines which category an offense falls into. If a crime is punishable by a maximum of 14 days in jail, it is a violation or infraction. Crimes that carry a maximum punishment of a year in jail are misdemeanors. A felony is the most serious type of crime in New York and is defined as an offense that carries a possible imprisonment sentence of over a year.

Most first-offense drunk boating offenses are misdemeanors. Only boating while ability impaired by alcohol is a less-serious violation/infraction. A first offense of any of the other offenses – including drug or combination BWAIs and all BWIs – is charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail.

If a boat operator convicted of a BWAI or BWI has prior offenses, the criminal consequences are more severe. A second offense within 10 years is a Class E felony, punishable by $1,000 to $5,000 in fines and/or a maximum of four years in prison. A third offense within 10 years is a Class D felony. The driver can be fined between $2,000 and $10,000 and also risks up to seven years in prison.

Tiffany Heitcamp's Death

Tiffany Heitcamp died in the summer of 2006 in a boating accident. She was a 20-year-old woman from Syracuse, New York, who was boating with Keir Weimer on a lake in New York State. Weimer was operating the ski boat when it crashed into a lakeside campground. The boat flew more than 150 feet into the air before striking a structure. The crash killed Tiffany Heitkamp.

Law enforcement tested Weimer’s BAC and found it to be over the legal limit at 0.10 percent. Police learned that he had been drinking in a nearby bar before the accident. Weimer had never been convicted of BWI before, but he had two prior convictions for drunk driving and was out on a pending DWI charge.

However, under the New York law in effect in 2006, the court did not have authority to consider those earlier drunk driving charges in Weimer's sentencing for the boating accident. Instead, he had to be treated as a first offender, not as a repeat offender, despite his numerous alcohol-related violations.

Enactment of Tiffany's Law

Six years after Tiffany Heitkamp's 2006 death, the legislature changed the law. The amendment, known as Tiffany's Law, links drunk driving and boating offenses. It provides that a conviction for any of these offenses be treated as a prior for any subsequent offense.

That means that if a person gets a DWI one year and a BWI the next, the DWI is considered a prior offense for BWI sentencing purposes. Likewise, a person who is convicted of a BWI one year will be treated as a repeat offender if convicted of a subsequent DWI.