California Harbors and Navigation Code 655 - Boating Under The Influence

California has strict care for its coast and treats irresponsible boating seriously. This includes having specific Harbors and Navigation Codes that must be adhered to. Harbor patrols meticulously watch for any signs of boat operators displaying boating or waterway violations. They also pay close attention to any dangerous or reckless behavior.

Violating any of the state’s Harbors and Navigation Codes may result in long-term loss of your privilege to operate a boat on the open sea. Not to mention the fines and potential jail time that follow such convictions. For a deeper understanding of what this statute covers, let’s review the legal definition of boating under the influence.

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Defining Boating Under The Influence

Boating under the influence is also referred to as BUI and is defined under Harbors and Navigation Code 655. This law states it is a crime to:

  • Operate a vessel,
    • Such as a motorized boat, an aquaplane, airboat, jet ski or water ski, or any similar type of vessel.
    • It also includes riding on an inner tube, water ski, surfboard, or similar floatation device that is being pulled behind a motorized boat or vessel.
  • While under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
    • Under the influence means you are physically and/or mentally impaired by the controlled substances you have consumed.
      • This impairment makes it difficult, if not impossible, for you to operate a vessel the way a cautious and sober person would.
      • Cautiously operating a vessel simply indicates someone was using standard, ordinary care.
    • The type of drugs includes both prescription and illicit controlled substances.
      • OTC (over-the-counter) drugs may be considered if the warning label states users should not consume alcohol or other drugs while taking it and should not operate heavy machinery.
      • If such warning labels were ignored, you could still face a BUI offense.

Under this statute, vessels that do not apply are canoes, kayaks, rowboats, dinghies, or other non-motorized boats. To help provide a broader legal definition of what boating under the influence is, the following outlines all the subsections of this law.

Harbors and Navigation Code 655(b) - Boating under the influence (BUI);

This section applies if the defendant operated a vessel or similar water-faring device while under the influence of alcohol, illicit drugs, or a combination of the two.

Harbors and Navigation Code 655(c) - Boating with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher;

The defendant faces this part of BUI laws if they operated a water-faring craft while their BAC level was at or above 0.08 percent.

Harbors and Navigation Code 655(d) - Operating a commercial boat with a BAC of 0.04 or higher;

The defendant would be guilty of this section of BUI laws if they had a BAC of 0.04 percent or higher and the vessel they were using was something other than a recreational craft, otherwise known as commercial vessels. These types of crafts include passenger ferries, sport fishing boats, and/or touring boats.

Harbors and Navigation Code 655(f) - Boating under the influence causing serious bodily injury;

This law is also referred to as aggravated BUI causing injury. It states if you operate a vessel while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, act in any unlawful way - including neglecting the proper operating care and procedures of a boat as set forth by law, AND your conduct and/or neglect causes another person to be seriously injured, you face this offense.

An important factor to take into account, even if you show no signs of obvious impairment from alcohol or drug consumption, you can still face any of the above offenses. This is especially the case when the defendant tests positive from a chemical, blood, or urine test. If you can relate to this situation, it’s highly recommended you find an effective BUI or DUI defense lawyer to help fight these charges.

Similar Offenses

In some respects, BUI is closely related to California’s DUI or driving under the influence laws, except the motorized vehicle is a sea-faring vessel. If you notice, much of the same language is used in describing both legal codes. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to realize just how harsh the consequence can be for driving or operating any type of heavy machinery while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

California VC 23152(a)  - driving while under the influence;

This law prohibits driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

California VC 23152(b)  - BAC of 0.08 or higher while driving an automobile;

This section of DUI laws specifically prohibits having a blood alcohol concentration(BAC) of 0.08 percent or above while you are operating a motor vehicle.

California VC 23153 - DUI causing injury;

This crime is committed when you drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and cause another person to be seriously injured.

California PC 191.5(a) - gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated;

You violate this law when you operate a motor vehicle while you are intoxicated (with alcohol and/or drugs) AND you acted with gross negligence which resulted in someone else getting killed.

The Prosecution

To be indicted for violating Harbors and Navigation Code 655, boating under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, the prosecution must first prove the facts of the case. Also known as the elements of the crime, they are:

  • The defendant operated a motorized vessel, boat, airboat, swamp boat, water ski, jet ski, modified water-faring device, or similar watercraft, AND
  • The defendant was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.

Remember, you can still face these charges even if you showed no obvious signs that they were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Nautical patrols, otherwise known as harbor police, take safety and water-faring laws seriously. So, if the harbor police choose to charge you with a BUI the prosecution will likely fight their hardest to seek a conviction.

Sometimes, refusing a blood, urine, or chemical test during a BUI investigation could be construed as an admonition of guilt. Refusing to take a test does not mean you are excluded from being charged and convicted. You could face an automatic driver’s license suspension is you refuse to submit to one.

If harbor patrols suspected a boat operator is under the influence of controlled substances, they will not hold back charges simply because the operator refused a breathalyzer, urine, or blood test.

Who Can Be Charged

These situations illustrate who can be charged with Harbors and Navigation Code 655, boating under the influence.

Example 1:

Ceasar is partying on a speed boat and drinks half a dozen beers. He decides to ride on an inner tube that is being pulled behind the boat.

He can face a BUI even though he was not the one piloting the vessel. Being physically and mentally impaired while riding in the attached inner tube is enough to charge him with this offense.

Example 2:

Captain Stevens operates a deep-sea diving boat and takes passengers out nearly every weekend. He wakes up with a headache after a late night of drinking and decides to treat it with a clamato-beer combination. He drives to the docks and parks crookedly, taking up four spaces. Thinking he was not impaired, he still decides to take his customers out on the water. Within fifteen minutes of being out, he falls asleep at the helm.

His night of drinking and beer before work left his BAC levels at 0.05 percent. Captain Stevens could be charged with Harbors and Navigation Code 655(d) for operating a commercial vessel while under the influence of alcohol. He may also face charges for VC 23152(a), DUI because he drove to work while still intoxicated.

Example 3:

Karen drinks a bottle of wine before riding jet skis on the lake with her friend. She speeds up, beyond a reasonable limit and nearly crashes into another person on a rowboat.

She could face charges for Harbors and Navigation Code 655, boating under the influence even though she showed no signs of obvious impairment. Her BAC was at 0.04 percent and her unreasonable speeding determined she was not able to act as cautiously as a sober person would have.

Legal Defense

Open containers are not allowed while someone is driving a motor vehicle but that does not apply to boats. You are permitted to have open alcoholic beverages while on a boat, the operator just cannot be under the influence while they are piloting the vessel.

Here are some common legal defenses that have been used to dispute charges for Harbors and Navigation Code 655.

False Accusation

There are situations where people act erratically, nervously, or absentmindedly when operating a motorboat. Such behavior could have nothing to do with being intoxicated. Unfortunately, this kind of conduct can lead to a false accusation for BUI. Harbor patrols have to treat every situation with caution, but if drugs and/or alcohol were not involved, you should not be guilty of this offense.

For instance, Sally was learning how to pilot her first motorized sailboat. After taking courses on how to operate and steer it, she decided to take it out for the first time. The combination of sun exposure and hourly caffeinated beverages made her look disheveled. Her nerves got the best of her and she began to speed, narrowly avoiding other boaters. When harbor patrols stopped her, the disheveled appearance and shaking hands gave them the impression Sally was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. She told them there was no alcohol or drugs in her system nor on her new boat, and passed the sobriety breathalyzer. They still did not believe her and charged her with a BUI when she refused to take the test again.

Sally maintained her innocence, claiming she was falsely accused. Her BUI defense lawyer was able to dispute the officers’ testimony by arguing that exhaustion, frustration, and caffeine irritability led to her appearance and behavior. The fact that her boat lacked any type of containers for alcohol and that she passed the first breathalyzer test helped to support this defense.

You Acted With Ordinary Care

Drinking while on a boat is not a crime and is often socially acceptable. That said, some people are so experienced in operating their vessels that alcohol and/or drug consumption will not impact how they pilot. To be guilty of BUI, you have to be impaired enough that you could not cautiously operate the vessel the same way a sober person using ordinary care would if they were under the same circumstances.

Larry, for example, enjoys drinking tequila sunrises when on his speedboat. He has three drinks and is out on the water for five hours. Because he has years of experience boating, he can cautiously pilot his vessel without exhibiting any signs of intoxication. Someone in another boat reports Larry to harbor police after seeing him drink his sunrise and immediately go to the helm. He makes it safely back to the docks before having to interact with law enforcement.

Larry may have had alcohol in his system and operated his vessel while drinking, but his behavior was not any different than that of a sober person. The fact that he was able to cautiously steer, operate, and return his boat without incident were determining factors. He was able to act cautiously, the way a sober person would and would not be guilty of Harbors and Navigation Code 655.

Lack of Probable Cause/Unlawful Search and Seizure

The U.S. Constitution’s fourth amendment provides everyone with protection from illegal search and seizure. This means law enforcement needs probable cause or a legal warrant to stop and search someone. If they lacked a reason to suspect a crime had been committed, then any evidence they used against you could be considered inadmissible.

For instance, Benjamin was fishing on his motorboat when harbor police randomly interrupted him, asking to search his boat. When he refused they ignored him and searched the boat anyway. They found a bottle of whiskey and charged him with a BUI.

Not only was Benjamin not doing anything unlawful, but he was also not displaying any behavior that would indicate he was under the influence of alcohol. Additionally, the officer’s failure to provide a reasonable explanation or just cause for searching him is a prime example of lacking probable cause.

Penalties for boating under the influence

If you are convicted of Harbors and Navigation Code 655(b), 655(c), or 655(d), and it is your first offense, you face these possible BUI misdemeanor penalties;

  • Informal (misdemeanor) probation,
  • As long as six months in county jail, and/or
  • Possible fines of up to one thousand dollars.
  • You may also be required to enroll in a state-approved DUI school.

For second or subsequent offenses the misdemeanor penalties are:

  • A potential one-year county jail sentence, and/or
  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • As much as one thousand dollars in fines.
  • Potential enrollment in a DUI course.

Enhanced Penalties

If you are convicted of Harbors and Navigation Code 655(f) for aggravated BUI causing serious bodily injury, you face:

  • Misdemeanor;
  • Informal probation,
  • Ninety days minimum in county jail,
  • Up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • Fines of up to five thousand dollars.
  • Felony;
  • Formal (felony) probation,
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in county jail.

More severe punishments are applied in cases where you have prior convictions for boating or driving under the influence. Even if you are given probation for this offense, there are specific conditions that will be applied.

Enhanced probation conditions

If you are given misdemeanor or felony probation for boating under the influence causing serious bodily injury and:

  • You have a prior conviction for any BUI offense that did not cause serious bodily injury, you face;
    • A minimum of five days in county jail, and
    • A minimum two-hundred-fifty dollar fine.
  • You have a prior conviction for aggravated boating under the influence, you face;
    • A minimum county jail sentence of ninety days, and
    • A minimum two-hundred-fifty dollar fine.

Even if you expect to get probation, certain factors make it possible for you to face jail time, fines, and probational restrictions. It’s important to get the help of a BUI defense attorney who can fight for the best possible outcome.

Penalties for Similar Offenses

Attempting to dispute these accusations without the right legal representation might make things easier for the prosecution to present their case. Getting the help of a criminal defense lawyer could mean the difference between facing maximum penalties or receiving more desirable results.

California VC 23152(a)  - driving under the influence;

  • Misdemeanor;
  • Informal (misdemeanor) probation,
  • A potential county jail sentence of up to one year,
  • Fines and court fees of three-hundred-ninety dollars or more,
  • Attendance and participation in a California court-approved DUI school,
  • Traveling restrictions to Canada, and
  • Driver’s licenses suspension for a minimum of six months.

California VC 23152(b)  - driving with a BAC of 0.08 or above;

  • Misdemeanor;
  • Informal (misdemeanor) probation,
  • As long as one year in county jail,
  • Three-hundred-ninety dollar minimum fines plus court fees
  • Completion of DUI school, and
  • Driver’s license suspension for up to three years. 
  • Felony;
  • Up to three years in state prison,
  • Formal (felony) probation,
  • Driver’s license revoked for up to two years, and
  • Labeled as an HTO (habitual traffic offender).

California VC 23153 - DUI causing injury;

  • Misdemeanor;
  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • A potential one-year in county jail,
  • As much as five thousand dollars in fines,
  • Enrollment and attendance in a California DUI school,
  • Driver’s license suspended for up to three years.
  • Felony;
  • 2, 3, or 4 years in state prison,
  • A strike on your record,
  • Fines of up to five thousand dollars,
  • Attendance and participation in DUI school,
  • Three years of HTO status,
  • Driver’s license suspended for up to five years.

California PC 191.5(a) - gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated;

  • Felony;
  • Formal probation,
  • 4, 6, or 10 years in state prison,
  • As much as ten thousand dollars in fines, OR
  • 15 years to life in state prison.

Call Us Today

The Law Offices of Anna R. Yum can help with you or your loved one’s BUI case. You do not have to face a Harbors and Navigation Code 655 offense without trusted help by your side. If you are located in the greater San Diego area, Los Angeles or Orange County don’t hesitate to contact Attorney Yum’s offices for assistance.

As an award-winning criminal defense lawyer, Attorney Yum understands how difficult it can be to beat boating under the influence charges. With her help, you can expect an aggressive fight for your rights and your future.

Contact us today for a no-obligation, free consultation at 619-233-4433, or use our online contact form.

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