PHOENIX — When Lt. Alan Nelson and others with the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office stop boat operators suspected of being under the influence, the suspects often refuse to take the Breathalyzer tests officers carry.
Under state law, suspected drunken drivers who refuse to submit to tests of their breath, blood, urine or other bodily substances face 12-month suspensions of their driver’s licenses. There’s no such penalty for those operating watercraft, something that Nelson said handicaps those who patrol Arizona’s waterways.
“If they refuse to take that test, we can’t tell if they’re under the influence of drugs or have a BAC of 0.01, 0.08 or 0.20 because we can’t get the evidence we need,” Nelson said.
State Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, whose district includes Lake Mead, Lake Havasu, Lake Mohave and stretches of the Colorado River popular with boaters, wants to change that.
Under HB 2003, watercraft operators who refuse tests for alcohol or drugs would face civil penalties totaling $1,250.
“Law enforcement is basically neutralized because there’s nothing in statute that could actually hold someone for a crime,” Borrelli said. “Boating laws fall in the cracks. We now need to put putty in those cracks.”
Nelson said officers will still detain boaters suspected of operating under the influence, but they must obtain a warrant to take samples. In the time that it takes to get a warrant, he said, nature can run its course and the blood alcohol level necessary to prosecute disappears.
“It’s funny how it works: We have to have a $10,000 piece of equipment to be able to say the same thing that the average Joe knows just by looking at them,” Nelson said. “If you can’t tell how intoxicated someone is, you can’t charge them with a crime.”
HB 2003 also addresses what Borrelli calls another serious watercraft loophole. Under current state law, crashes on the water are only prosecuted if a boat or other object that’s hit has a person operating or attending to it. If a crash involves moored watercraft or unattended docks, Borrelli said, victims can’t recover damages under insurance policies because no crime technically occurred.
“Folks are still going to do what they usually do, but now citizens will be protected in case someone crashes into their boat and decides to take off,” Borrelli said.
The bill also would make it easier for authorities to charge boaters with aggravated operating under the influence if a passenger age 15 and younger is aboard.
HB 2003 was assigned to the House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee but had yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
Nelson said that over time word has spread around the Southwest boating community that the authorities can’t practically enforce laws against operating watercraft under the influence. That contributes to a perception that Arizona is a place for boaters to cut loose, he said.
“People come out here for the sole purpose of partying,” Nelson said. “People ride Jet Skis and personal watercraft like they are toys. You look at Country Music Television and they’re singing about ‘pontoons’ where everyone’s on their boats and drinking.”
Jim Salscheider, president and CEO of the Lake Havasu Marine Association, a nonprofit coalition of area businesses, said officials would accomplish more by focusing on educating boaters about the dangers of operating under the influence.
“Accidents are horrible – one is too many – but focusing on them isn’t as important as education,” he said. “There’s freedom to boat, but with that comes responsibilities.”
In 2010, Salscheider’s group launched a program offering Coast Guard-licensed boat operators for hire. He called that an example of educating boaters about ways to prevent operating under the influence, promote safety and avoid facing criminal charges.
“If you’re going to drink and drive like on the road, you need to be prepared for the consequences,” he said.
While a 2008 attempt to create penalties for boaters who refuse tests for drug and alcohol levels failed in the Senate, Borrelli said he was confident about his bill’s prospects because it is common sense.
“People might not always be responsible,” he said. “But what are rules but to keep honest people honest?”