The state of Iowa considers operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol a criminal offense known as boating while intoxicated (BWI). Some other states use the term BUI, or boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A BWI charge is not the same as a charge of operating while intoxicated (OWI). An OWI applies to operating a motor vehicle like a car or truck on land.
A BWI applies to operating a boat on the water. A boat can be mechanized, like a motorboat, or non-mechanized, like a rowboat without a motor. An operator of either type of boat can commit a BWI.
Blood Alcohol Level for BWI
The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for BWI is 0.08 percent, the same as for OWI. Prior to July 1, 2011, the blood alcohol level for BWI was 0.10 percent. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, "operating a motorboat" involves operating a motorboat that is powered by a motor that is running. "Operating a sailboat" means the sailboat is powered by a motor that is running or the craft has sails hoisted and is underway.
Authority Over BWIs
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the agency with authority over suspending boating privileges for BWIs. The Iowa DNR has authority to stop boaters on all navigable waters except for ponds and privately owned lakes. An Iowa DNR or law enforcement officer cannot compel a boater to take a chemical or breath test for BWI.
If a boater refuses to submit to a chemical test, the court must order that the boater not operate a boat for one year upon a BWI conviction. The Iowa Department of Transportation cannot suspend or revoke a person’s driver’s license for a BWI conviction.
Penalties for BWIs Under Iowa Law
The penalties for a first BWI include imprisonment for a minimum of 48 hours, a fine of up to $1,000, loss of boat operating privileges for one year, the requirement to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and any recommended treatment, and completion of a course for drinking drivers. A first BWI is considered a serious misdemeanor. The penalties for a second offense of BWI include imprisonment for a minimum of seven days, a fine between $1,500 and $5,000, loss of boat operating privileges for two years, the requirement to undergo a substance abuse evaluation, and any recommended treatment and completion of a course for drinking drivers. A second BWI is considered an aggravated misdemeanor.
A prior offense such as a conviction or deferred judgment for BWI within the past 12 years can enhance the penalty for a BWI. The penalties for a third offense of BWI include imprisonment between 30 days and one year, a fine between $2,500 and $7,500, loss of boat operating privileges for six years, the requirement to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and any recommended treatment, and completion of a course for drinking drivers. A third BWI is considered a Class D felony, the least serious type of felony in Iowa.
BWIs Involving Serious Injury or Death
A BWI involving serious injury to another person other than the boat operator carries penalties of 30 days to five years of incarceration, $2,500 to $7,000 in fines, loss of boat operating privileges for one year, the requirement to undergo a substance evaluation and any recommended treatment, and completion of a course for drinking drivers. A BWI of this sort is a Class D felony. A BWI involving death to another person, including a member of the boater's crew or party, but other than the boat operator, carries a penalty of up to 25 years in prison and a six-year loss of boating privileges.
Remain Aware on the Water
Alcohol reduces reaction time and affects a boater’s ability to assess a situation. Many factors can multiply the effects of alcohol or drugs. These include wind, sun, glare off the water and water movement. Tides, interactions with other boaters and interactions with wildlife can also distort a boater’s perception while they are intoxicated. Boaters who have been drinking should ask another crew member to operate the craft.
Drinking on Boats Is Allowed
Iowa does not prohibit open containers of alcohol on boats. This means people on board a boat can consume alcohol, even if the boat is moving. The exception is that anyone operating the boat, such as the captain, cannot be under the influence while operating the boat. Iowa prohibits the operation of water skis, surfboards or similar devices while under the influence of alcohol.
After an Accident
An operator involved in a boating accident is required to stop the vessel immediately at the scene of the accident, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The operator is required to assist anyone injured or in danger from the accident unless the rescue would seriously endanger themselves, their vehicle or their passengers. The operator must provide their name, address and vehicle identification to anyone injured and the owner of any property damaged in the accident.
Report Boating Accidents
A boat operator must report an accident to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The operator is required to report the accident within 48 hours of the occurrence to the Iowa DNR if the accident involved death, disappearance or personal injuries requiring medical treatment. The operator is required to report the accident in writing to Iowa DNR within five days if the damage to the vessel and/or property exceeds $2,000. The operator should report the accident on the accident report form available on the Iowa DNR’s website.
An operator should submit the report to their local Conservation Office with the Iowa DNR. The report should include a full description of the collision, occurrence or casualty. An operator who must fill out a report must also contact their local Iowa DNR Conservation Officer or local sheriff’s department immediately to report the incident.
Avoid Boating Accidents
Boaters can avoid accidents with docks, piers and other vessels by traveling slowly and at a far distance from hard objects. Hard objects include dock posts, pilings, other vessels and buoys. Traveling too fast and too close can lead to collisions. Boaters can also reduce the potential for injury and death by wearing life jackets and having a life raft on board.
Iowa Code Section 462A.12 requires boaters to not operate vessels, water skis, surfboards or similar devices in a careless, reckless or negligent manner. Careless, reckless and negligent operation of a vessel or device is considered a separate offense from BWI.
Prohibited Watercraft Operations
Iowa Code Section 462A.12 requires that an individual not operate a personal watercraft at any time between sundown and sunup. In addition, an operator is not allowed to chase or harass animals while operating a personal watercraft or motorboat. Operators should avoid engaging in these actions so they will not be cited for BWI as well as other possible offenses.
Avoid Mixing Minors, Boats and Alcohol
A teenager between the ages of 12 and 17 is allowed to operate a motorboat over ten horsepower or a personal watercraft (PWC) if they earn a boater education certificate. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources offers boater education. Parents can spend family time with children on the water, but should avoid bringing alcohol on board with minors. Parents and guardians should take steps to ensure that teens who have access to operate boats and devices are unable to access alcohol.
BWIs Can Affect OWI Cases
When a prosecutor determines what plea offer to give a defendant in an OWI case, the prosecutor always reviews the defendant’s criminal record. If the defendant has one or more prior convictions for BWI, the prosecutor may choose not to offer the defendant a deferred judgment in a first offense OWI case. The prosecutor may also modify the plea offer to include more jail time and a higher fine.
- Iowa Department of Natural Resources: Know the Facts About Boating and Drinking
- Iowa Department of Natural Resources: Handbook of Iowa Boating Laws and Responsibilities
- Iowa Code Section 462A.12: Water Navigation Regulations, Prohibited Operation
- Iowa Department of Natural Resources: Iowa Boater Education
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.