Boating Under the Influence in Nevada: Laws, Penalties & What You Need to Know

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Sure, the state of Nevada is so well known for partying that carrying open containers is actually legal in certain parts of Las Vegas, but the law is not on your side if the party extends to your boat operator. Throughout all of the state's waterways, boating under the influence (BUI) is just as serious an offense as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI), and it comes with similar penalties, including serious fines and equally serious jail time.

Getting Busted: Boating Laws in Nevada

While many states lump their DUI and BUI laws together in legislation that covers the impaired operation of all sorts of vehicles, Chapter 488 of the Nevada Revised Statutes focuses squarely on watercraft, which should come as no surprise given the state's bounty of beautiful – and recreationally popular – lakes. The laws cover everything from ownership and registration of watercraft to disposal and waste practices to operating a vessel or motorboat under the influence of intoxicating liquor or prohibited and controlled substances.

Also known as BWI (boating while intoxicated), a boater may be charged with this offense in Nevada if they operate a vessel while impaired by either alcohol or a controlled or intoxicating substance in such a way that it makes them incapable of doing so safely. When dealing with alcohol, this is determined via a blood alcohol concentration (or BAC) level, which is typically gauged by a breathalyzer test. On Nevadan waterways, it's illegal to operate a boat or personal watercraft if you have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of taking control of the water vessel, per NRS 488.410.

It's also important to note that Nevada law says that any person operating a vessel on state waters has given implied consent to a preliminary BUI test by law enforcement officers.

BUI Limits for Other Intoxicating Substances

Because Nevada law prohibits boating under the influence of controlled or intoxicating substances – not just alcohol – it's also illegal to control a boat under the influence of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and others. Here, boaters can be charged with a BUI (in addition to putting themselves at risk for other drug-related charges, as many of these substances are illegal) if the nanograms of the substance per milliliter of urine or blood exceed a certain limit, as laid out in NRS 488.410:

  • Amphetamine: 500 ng/ML (urine), 100 ng/ML (blood)
  • Cocaine: 150 ng/ML (urine), 50 ng/ML (blood)
  • Cocaine metabolite: 150 ng/ML (urine), 50 ng/ML (blood)
  • Heroin: 2,000 ng/ML (urine), 50 ng/ML (blood)
  • Heroin metabolite - morphine:

2,000 ng/ML (urine), 50 ng/ML (blood)

  • Heroin metabolite - 6-monoacetyl morphine:

10 ng/ML (urine), 10 ng/ML (blood)

  • Lysergic acid diethylamide: 25 ng/ML (urine), 10 ng/ML (blood)
  • Marijuana - delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol: 2 ng/ML (blood)
  • Marijuana metabolite - 11-OH-tetrahydrocannabinol: 5 ng/ML (blood)
  • Methamphetamine: 500 ng/ML (urine), 100 ng/ML (blood)
  • Phencyclinide: 25 ng/ML (urine), 10 ng/ML (blood)

Of course, it should come as no surprise that it's also unlawful to operate a watercraft under the influence of a combination of liquor and other substances such as these – two wrongs don't make a right here, either.

Nevada BUI Penalties

In most cases, a BUI charge in the Silver State is a misdemeanor crime. This type of BUI can result in a fine up to $1,000 as well as up to six months in jail. However, if the intoxicated boat operator causes significant bodily harm to others, the charge rises to felony levels. For this category B felony, those convicted are subject to between two and 20 years in prison, as well as between $2,000 to $5,000 in fines.

Depending on the circumstances, penalties for what the law considers "homicide by vessel" may escalate to 25 years to life in prison (with potential parole eligibility at 10 years). If a person under 15 years of age was in the watercraft at the time of the offense, this can also aggravate the charges. Felony BUI offenses may result in the defendant's loss of firearm possession and voting rights, too.

Nevada DUI law, as is common across the United States, imposes greater penalties for repeat offenses, but attorney John McCurley of Nolo's DrivingLaws points out that prior BUI convictions don't usually increase the severity of penalties. However, Las Vegas attorneys Hofland & Tomsheck add that when dealing with felony offenses (again, those which caused serious injury or death), repeat offenses can indeed escalate the penalties.

Boaters convicted of a BUI will not see their Nevada driver's license suspended, as the Sagebrush State does not require operators of a watercraft to possess a Nevada boating license.

Common Legal Defenses to a BUI Charge

According to NRS 488.410, the BUI defendant may attempt to offer evidence that they consumed the alcohol that put them over the legal limit after being in physical control of the watercraft (but before they were tested), rather than while they were driving the vessel. However, to employ this defense at the trial or preliminary hearing, the defendant must direct, file and serve written notice of the intent to offer this defense at least 14 days before that trial or hearing.

Naturally, this defense will be a lot harder to pull off if the boater was under the influence of a substance that is illegal under Nevada law. And in BUI offenses resulting in significant bodily harm or death, plea bargaining is prohibited by Nevada state law.

Boating under the influence is one of the leading causes of recreational boater accidents and deaths in the Battle Born State. Speaking to Fox 5 KVVU-TV of Vegas in 2018, Nevada Game Warden Captain David Pfiffner reminds Nevadans that, "Every boat operator makes a conscious choice when they decide to drink and operate a vessel. Boating under the influence is a 100 percent preventable crime."