Snowmobiling While Intoxicated (SWI) in New York: Overview, Consequences & Next Steps

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New York state is a popular snowmobiling destination, and every year, snowmobile drivers and passengers take to the state's hills and valleys to enjoy its many trails. Although drivers do not need a license to operate a snowmobile in New York, the state has some of the most stringent laws in the country regarding them, particularly concerning operating one while intoxicated.

Snowmobiling While Intoxicated

New York driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws describe how law enforcement proves intoxication charges regarding motor vehicles, including snowmobiles. A snowmobile operator can face charges related to impaired driving if that driver has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. In a common law DWI, an officer will assess impairment by observing the operation of a snowmobile and the driver's behavior and physical appearance. Law enforcement then makes an arrest once probable cause is certain, according to Team Green Lawyers.

A statutory DWI comes from a conclusive chemical sobriety test carried out through blood, urine, breath or saliva. If law enforcement administers the test correctly, it is admissible in court and there is no further reason to prove intoxication. Refusal to take a chemical BAC test can result in additional fines and penalties apart from the snowmobiling while intoxicated (SWI) charge.

SWI Charges and Penalties

An SWI is a misdemeanor, but it is still a serious charge. A driver can face a fine of up to $1,500, 90 days in jail and a year suspension of snowmobiling privileges and registration if convicted. If there are two prior convictions, the third charge becomes a felony, according to the Nave Law Firm.

Impaired drivers can also face other charges. These include:

  • Snowmobiling While Ability Impaired (SWAI): This involves the operation of a snowmobile while under the influence of alcohol. A misdemeanor SWAI includes a maximum fine of $350, 15 days in jail and a six-month suspension of snowmobile privileges and registration.
  • SWAI-Drugs: This charge involves the operation of a snowmobile while impaired by drugs. SWAI-Drugs is also a misdemeanor offense. If convicted, a driver can face a maximum fine of $500, 90 days of jail time, and a 120-month suspension of snowmobile privileges and registration.

The Introduction of Tiffany's Law

In 2013, the New York State Senate passed Tiffany's Law (S.1790), which would have made operating vessels – including snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and cars – while intoxicated a consideration in a boating while intoxicated (BWI) conviction. Alternately, a BWI charge would have been considered during a DWI, SWI or driving an ATV while intoxicated conviction. The law, sponsored by Senator John A. DeFrancisco, was named after Tiffany Heitkamp, a woman who was passenger in a boat and died because the boat's operator was intoxicated. The boat operator had DWI convictions, but was charged as a first-time offender.

The idea behind Tiffany's Law was to take into account a person's history of similar convictions when driving any vessel while under the influence. The link between them would hold those charged accountable for a history of negligent behavior while operating a vehicle of any kind while intoxicated and stiffen the penalties for the conviction. While it passed the New York State Senate several times, it did not pass the Assembly.

A Truncated Version of Tiffany's Law Passes

In 2016, a different version of Tiffany's Law (A.1597-A/S.3785-A) was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. It strengthened penalties for BWI offenses and also required consideration of prior DWI or DWAI convictions when sentencing a person for BWI or BWAI, and vice versa. As DWIs and DWAIs weren't linked to BWI offenses, it was impossible to convict someone as a repeat offender, even if there were prior violations of similar intoxication laws. With a link between these laws, harsher penalties for repeat offenders are now possible.

However, in this new version of the law, SWI convictions were left out. An SWI is still recorded with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and appears on an offender's criminal record, but doesn't affect that person's ability to drive another vessel or increase penalties in the event of a similar conviction. The New York State Snowmobile Association, state judges and law enforcement are said to be frustrated by SWIs not being included. According to Senator DeFrancisco, the New York State Assembly has long opposed laws with increased penalties, and the truncated version was what could be passed.