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BUI (Boating Under the Influence)

Many people believe that out on the Ohio River, normal laws do not apply. However, boating under the influence— just like driving under the influence (DUI)—is illegal, no matter how you look at it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re from Kentucky or Ohio, if you’re boating under the influence in the Ohio River, you’re breaking the law.

The law in Ohio states:

“The O.R.C. 1547 prohibits someone from operating or being in physical control of a vessel underway or manipulating water skis, aquaplanes, or similar devices while under the influence of alcohol of drugs.”

A section of the BUI law prohibits operation or physical control of the same amphibious vehicles with a concentration of certain controlled substances: cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, and other drugs.

Similarities to Driving Laws

The prohibited level of blood alcohol content for driving under the influence is 0.08%. Boating under the influence laws prohibit the same level of illegal BAC as the DUI and Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence (OVI) laws.

Differences from Driving Laws

First of all, unless you are operating a boat for commercial purposes (transporting cargo for hire, towing operations, etc.), you do not need a license. For people born after January 1, 1982, however, there are a few requirements.

  • You may not operate a watercraft with a motor greater than 10 horsepower unless you have completed and passed an approved safe boating course.
  • You must present your exam and course completion certificate to a law enforcement officer if you were stopped for any reason out on the water.

Officers may also randomly stop your boat at anytime without a warrant to perform a safety inspection. The officers do not need to have any suspicion that you are in violation of any law. During the safety stops, officers can give you a sobriety check, expanding the inspection to checking for BUI violations. The authority to perform BUI inspections, however, only can be done by Coast Guard officers and not state, county, or city marine patrol officers.

There is also no automatic suspension of licenses if convicted of BUI. No boating license is required for non-commercial boating in Ohio water, so you cannot lose any documentation. You will not lose your automobile driving privileges either.


A BUI is considered a first degree misdemeanor and is subject to a maximum jail sentence of six months. If you were convicted by the state after being arrested for a BUI, you will be fined and receive a jail term of up to six months. You will have the option to attend a certified driver intervention program—qualified driver intervention program—as a substitute for the jail time of a minimum three days. If you are issued a notice of violation by the Coast Guard, however, your case might be heard in a civil penalty proceeding, which doesn’t have the normal protections granted to criminal defendants. The maximum penalty you could receive for a BUI in a federal civil proceeding is a fine of $7,000.

Although there is no boating license suspension policy for BUI convictions, you can be deterred from operating a watercraft in certain circumstances. If you refuse to take a chemical test when you’re arrested for a BUI, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources can prohibit you from registering and operating a watercraft for up to 12 months.

The minimum fine for a first BUI offense is $150 and a second offense within six years of the first carries a mandatory jail sentence of at least 10 days, along with another minimum fine of $150, but likely more for repeat offenders.

Under the Influence While the Boat is Not in Motion

If I drop anchor nowhere near any other boats, and peacefully fish while having a few drinks without bothering anyone, can I still get arrested?

Yes, you can. As far as the law is concerned, even if that boat isn’t going anywhere, if you’re under the influence, you’re still operating the watercraft in the eyes of the law.

The waters—although peaceful—are too dangerous for any exceptions. Boating accident statistics have shown that alcohol use is a significant contributing factor to boating accidents including: drowning, collisions between other boats, and collisions between stationary objects.

You would still be charged with a BUI if you were the operator of the watercraft and you were under the influence, even if the boat was not moving (aside from being secured to a dock or the shore). Simply dropping your anchor in an offshore area doesn’t exempt you from being charged. You would have to look at a navigation chart and map to see where any designated anchorage areas are near you.

The BUI law does not prohibit drinking on a boat but rather prohibits the operation of the boat while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both.

If you’re boating in the Ohio River, and you are charged with a BUI, contact The Farrish Law Firm, L.P.A. in Cincinnati to talk with a BUI attorney and figure out what your next step should be.