Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a crime in Nevada. Even if the person is operating the boat safely, it is automatically illegal to operate a watercraft with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher. Drunk boating or drugged boating is abbreviated BUI (boating under the influence), OUI (operating under the influence), or BWI (boating while intoxicated). A first-time offense with no serious injuries is a misdemeanor; otherwise, BUI is a felony.
Nevada BUI offense
|NRS 488.410 – 1st-time conviction, and no victim was killed or seriously injured||Misdemeanor:
|NRS 488.427 – Subsequent conviction, and no victim was killed or seriously injured||Category B felony:
|NRS 488.420 – BUI causing death or substantial bodily harm||Category B felony:
|NRS 488.425 – BUI causing death, and the defendant has 3 prior BUI convictions||Category A felony:
Depending on the case, BUI charges could be reduced or dismissed as part of a Nevada plea bargain. There are several possible defenses, including:
- the breath- or blood-testing equipment malfunctioned;
- the police committed misconduct when investigating or arresting the suspect; or
- the defendant had a medical condition that caused falsely BAC high results
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss the Nevada crime of driving a boat while impaired. Click on a topic below to jump to that section:
- 1. What is “operating a boat while under the influence” in Nevada?
- 2. What are the penalties under NRS 488.410?
- 3. Can the charges be fought?
- 4. Can immigrant defendants be deported?
- 5. When can the record get sealed?
It is a crime in Nevada “to be in actual physical control of a vessel under power or sail” while either:
- impaired by drugs, alcohol, or other chemicals;
- having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08% even if the person is not impaired from the alcohol;
- having illegal blood levels of the following drugs even if the person is not impaired from the drugs:
Prohibited substance while driving a boat in Nevada
Prohibited blood levels (nanograms per milliliter)
|Heroin metabolite morphine:||
|Heroin metabolite 6-monoacetyl morphine||
|Lysergic acid diethylamide||
|Marijuana metabolite (11-OH-tetrahydrocannabinol)||
Note that people face BUI charges no matter what kind of vessel they are driving, such as:
- jet skis1
1.1. Federal law
It is also against federal law under 46 USC § 2302 to drive a boat while under the influence of alcohol or a dangerous drug. BUI suspects potentially face prosecution under both state and federal law if the lake or river is federal land. But in practice, it is rare for both state and federal prosecutors to press charges for the same BUI incident.
In the same way police patrol highways for erratic driving, police also patrol Nevada’s bigger lakes and rivers for erratic boating--especially during Memorial Day and Fourth of July. Nevada also participates in Operation Dry Water, where patrol boats heighten enforcement during one high-traffic weekend a year.
A recent high-profile BUI incident occurred at Lake Mead when a game warden spotted consumer advocate Erin Brockovich struggling to moor her motorboat. She subsequently failed a breathalyzer test and ultimately pleaded no contest in Henderson Justice Court.2
Nevada’s other popular water landmarks include:
- Colorado River
- Truckee River
- White River
- Lake Tahoe (Washoe & Douglas)
- Lake Las Vegas (Clark)
- Lake Mohave (Clark)
- Spooner Lake (Washoe)
- Overland Lake (Elko)
- Wild Horse Reservoir (Elko)
- Wilson Reservoir (Elko)
- Lamoille Lake (Elko)
- Lake Lahontan (Elko & Churchill)
- Topaz Lake (Douglas)
- Angel Lake (Elko)
- Washoe Lake (Washoe)
- Walker Lake (Mineral)
- Pyramid Lake (Washoe)
1.3. Breath and blood tests
Anyone who drives a boat in Nevada gives “implied consent” to take a breath or blood test if a law enforcement officer suspects him or her of operating while impaired.
1.3.1. Preliminary breath test
When an officer first approaches the suspect, the officer may administer a Nevada preliminary breath test for alcohol. The officer will arrest suspects who refuse to submit to the preliminary breath test, even if the results would have been negative for alcohol.
The results of the preliminary test may not be used as evidence against the suspect should the case eventually go to trial. This test’s sole purpose is to help the officer to determine whether the suspect may be intoxicated.3
1.3.2. Evidentiary breath or blood tests
If the officer believes the defendant is only drunk and not high, the suspect may choose a breath test over the blood test. Otherwise, the defendant must take the blood test--this is because breathalyzers do not check for drugs, only alcohol.
If suspects refuse to take any test, then law enforcement may get a court order authorizing them to administer a forced blood draw.4
The punishment for BUI increases with each successive conviction. And predictably, the sentence is harsher when the incident causes serious injury or death.
2.1. Misdemeanor BUI (first-time BUI)
A first-time conviction in Nevada of operating a water vessel under the influence is a misdemeanor as long as no one gets seriously hurt or injured. The penalties carry up to six (6) months in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines.
In practice, judges also order the defendant to complete an online boater safety course as well as community service.5
2.2. Felony BUI
Any BUI incident where the defendant has a previous conviction or where a victim was seriously injured or killed is a felony.
Note that judges may not grant probation or a suspended sentence to defendants convicted of felony BUI. Judges also may not dismiss felony BUI charges whenever there is probable cause to support the defendant’s guilt.
Also note that if the defendant’s boat had a passenger under 15 years old, the court will consider that an “aggravating factor.” This means that the judge will order a steeper sentence that he/she would otherwise.
In addition, note that every defendant sentenced for a felony BUI will be required to undergo an evaluation for alcohol and drug abuse.
Finally, note that people sentenced to prison for DUI are usually housed in a minimum-security facility and are segregated from violent offenders.6
2.2.1. Second- or subsequent BUI
A second-time or subsequent BUI conviction in Nevada is a category B felony. The penalty carries:
- two to fifteen (2 – 15) years in prison; and
- fines of $2,000 to $5,0007
2.2.2. BUI causing serious injury or death
A Nevada BUI that causes someone else to die or sustain serious bodily harm is a category B felony. The penalty carries:
- two to twenty (2 – 20) years in prison; and
- fines of $2,000 to $5,0008
2.2.3. Homicide by vessel
Causing death by a BUI when the defendant has three prior BUI convictions is category A felony. The penalty carries:
- life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years; or
- 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years9
2.3. Plea bargains
As with every criminal case, it may be possible to negotiate BUI charges down to a dismissal or a lesser offense.
A common plea bargain is when BUI is reduced to “reckless or negligent boating” under NRS 488.400. This is only a misdemeanor and carries less of a stigma than boating under the influence.
2.4 BUI vs. DUI
Unlike DUIs in Nevada, BUI convictions do not cause the defendant’s driver’s license to get suspended.
Also unlike DUIs in Nevada, BUIs have no “seven-year wipeout” rule: If someone gets a BUI conviction and then seven years pass, any subsequent BUI charges will be prosecuted as a subsequent charge--not as a first-time charge.
And whereas a second-time DUI is a misdemeanor (as long as no one gets seriously hurt), a second-time BUI is always a felony whether or not anyone gets hurt.
As with DUI, there are literally dozens of possible ways to fight Nevada allegations of operating a water vessel while impaired. Five common defenses are:
- The defendant was not the one driving the boat;
- The law enforcement officer did not have probable cause to arrest the defendant;
- The breath- or blood-testing equipment was defective;
- The defendant had a physical or medical condition that causes falsely high BAC results;
- The law enforcement officer committed misconduct (such as not giving the defendant the option to take a breath test when no drug use was suspected)
In every case, the defense attorney would conduct a thorough investigation. This includes everything from getting the weather report and interviewing witnesses to documenting what the defendant ate prior to the incident and gathering medical records. Any of these factors could be the difference between a conviction and a dismissal.
If the defense attorney can show the prosecutors that they have too weak a case to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the state should dismiss the charges.
Boating under the influence is typically not a deportable offense. However, immigration laws are in a state of flux and are unpredictable.
Any non-U.S. citizen facing BUI charges should consult an attorney to try to ensure that the case will not threaten his/her legal status. Learn more about the criminal defense of immigrants in Nevada.
A misdemeanor BUI conviction may be sealed one (1) year after the case closes. However, felony BUI convictions may never be sealed from the defendant’s record.10
Note that BUI charges that get dismissed can be sealed from the defendant’s record right away.11Learn about how to seal Nevada criminal records.
Call a Nevada criminal defense attorney…
If you have been arrested for boating under the influence in Nevada, call our Las Vegas DUI defense attorneys for a free meeting. Our mission is to try to get your BUI charges reduced or dismissed as quickly as possible.
To learn about California BUI laws, go to our informational article on California BUI laws | Harbors & Navigation Code 655.
Injured in a BUI in Lake Mead? See our article about Lake Mead Boating Accidents and Injuries | Nevada personal injury lawyers.
Nevada BUI Defense Lawyer Disclaimer: The boating under the influence, BUI, drunk boating or other DUI defense information presented at this site should not be considered formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer or attorney client relationship. Any results set forth here were dependent on the facts of that case and the results will differ from case to case. Please contact a Nevada drunk boating defense lawyer or attorney for a free initial consultation. This website is not intended to solicit clients for matters outside of the State of Nevada.
- NRS 488.410
- Tom Ragan, “Erin Brockovich arrested at Lake Mead“, Las Vegas Review-Journal (June 8, 2013).
- NRS 488.450
- NRS 488.460
- NRS 488.410; Francis McCabe, “Erin Brockovich-Ellis quietly resolves her drunken boating case“, Las Vegas Review-Journal (October 4, 2013).
- NRS 488.430; NRS 488.420; NRS 488.427; NRS 488.425
- NRS 488.427
- NRS 488.420
- NRS 488.425
- NRS 179.245
- NRS 179.255