Washington State Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Laws & Penalties

Female sailor watching main sail during summer evening sail
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You've heard of driving under the influence (DUI) but in Washington state BUI – or boating under the influence – is a serious issue, too. In fact, the Washington State Parks Boating Program estimates that alcohol use is a leading contributing factor in about 17 percent of all boating fatalities in the state. Given the gravity of the consequences of boating while impaired, it's little wonder that Washington state is serious about its BUI laws and the associated penalties.

Washington State BUI Basics

The bulk of active legislation regarding BUI in Washington state can be found in the Revised Code of Washington Section 79A.60.040, which focuses on the operation of a vessel in a reckless manner or under the influence of any intoxicating substances, as well as consent to testing. Much like driving under the influence, boaters in Washington must be under the legal blood alcohol limit when operating a boat. Measured by blood alcohol content (BAC) – just as it is on land – that legal limit is 0.08 percent BAC. The idea here is to accurately gauge a person's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

And because both medicinal and recreational marijuana are legal in Washington state, the legal limit for boating under the influence of marijuana is 5.0 nanograms of THC – that's nanograms per milliliter of blood. Usually, THC is measured by a urine test, while BAC is assessed by a breath test.

Definitions and Jurisdiction of Washington BUI

Don't think boat operators can get tricky by twisting the definition of what a boat is and getting sloppy on the water. Washington state law for BUI applies to all boats, and that means the motorized and nonmotorized varieties, including canoes, kayaks and even rafts. Attorney John McCurley of Nolo's DrivingLaws notes that this includes all watercraft on the water that may be used as transportation, other than seaplanes. It does not include inflatable mattresses, inner tubes, sail or surf boards, or flotation devices primarily used as toys.

The jurisdiction of these laws is equally broad, too. As the Law Offices of Geoffrey Burg in Seattle point out, open water in Washington state not only falls under the jurisdiction of state law, but of federal law, as well. So long story short, local police, state police and even the federal Coast Guard may enforce Washington state laws pertaining to BUI.

Washington State BUI Penalties

In the Evergreen State, boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs is most often considered a gross misdemeanor, and that can entail both fines and jail time. Those found guilty of a misdemeanor BUI charge can expect to pay up to $5,000 in fines and spend up to a year in jail. If the BUI offender causes serious bodily injury, the resulting "assault by watercraft" fine can escalate to a felony, resulting in up to $20,000 in fines and up to 10 years in prison. BUIs that cause death can pump that up to $50,000 fines and a potential life sentence. However, BUI convictions do not typically entail Driver's license suspension in Washington.

Likewise, Washington boaters and visitors to the state can face serious legal consequences for refusing to take a breathalyzer or blood test at the request of law enforcement officials. This is considered a Class 1 civil infraction and may result in a fine of $1,000. On top of that, the Revised Code of Washington Section 3.62.090, which deals with public safety among other topics, allows for up to 105 percent to be added to that penalty for a potential total fine of $2,050.