Boating While Intoxicated: A Quick Guide to Virginia Law

Boating while under the influence of alcohol counts as a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia, and carries harsh penalties such as jail time and massive fines.

Driving under the influence doesn’t just apply to cars and trucks.

Virginia law acknowledges that boating while intoxicated is just as dangerous.

Operating a motorboat while drinking is a serious offense that can result in serious consequences, such as hefty fines, suspension of boating privileges, or even jail time.

For this reason, you should make sure you understand Virginia’s boating under the influence (BUI) laws before you get behind the wheel of your boat.

Virginia’s Boating While Intoxicated (BUI) Laws

woman posing while partying with friends on boat.

Virginia Code § 29.1-738 prohibits operating any motorboat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Virginia Code generally defines “under the influence” as:

  • Being under the influence of a substance to an extent that the driver exhibits impaired speech, muscular movement, behavior, or appearance.
  • Being impaired by a substance enough for it to affect the ability to drive the watercraft safely.
  • Having a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08% or higher (0.02% or higher for those under 21).
  • Having a cocaine blood concentration of .02mg/liter of blood or higher, or having a methamphetamine, PCP, or ecstasy blood concentration of .01mg/liter of blood or higher.

Unlike the laws for cars and trucks, having an open container of alcohol on your boat is not illegal. Further, your passengers can legally drink alcohol while the boat is in motion.

However, despite this discrepancy, Virginia’s BUI laws are just as strict for boaters as they are for drivers.

Even if there’s less of a stigma around drinking while piloting a boat, it’s just as dangerous, and illegal, as drinking and driving.

One final thing to note is that Virginia’s BUI laws technically prohibit operating any water vessel while intoxicated.

This means that operating a kayak, canoe, jet ski, or similar vessel while intoxicated is also illegal.

Criminal Penalties for BUI

sheriff patrolling the waters in his police boat.

Just like with DUI convictions, individuals convicted of BUI in Virginia often face harsher sentences based on whether they have previous alcohol-related convictions.

Especially if it’s not your first offense, a BUI conviction can result in incredibly serious penalties.

As a Class 1 misdemeanor, it will also show up on all background checks, and will be a part of your permanent criminal record.

Generally speaking, the sentence for a BUI conviction will include a suspension of your boating license, a small fine, and some amount of time in jail.

The court will also require that you complete a boating safety course through the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

First Offense BUI Penalties

As a Class 1 misdemeanor, your first conviction of BUI will result in the normal criminal penalties. This will include a jail sentence of up to 12 months, as well as a fine of up to $2,500.

As a boating specific offense that involved alcohol, the judge will also generally order that you:

  • Lose your boating license for up to 12 months.
  • Attend a substance abuse treatment program.
  • Attend a boating safety course through the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (as noted above).

Second Offense BUI Penalties

For a second offense of boating while intoxicated in Virginia, the general penalties remain the same. However, as a repeat offender, the judge will generally decide on a harsher sentence.

Additionally, your boating privileges will be suspended for 3 years instead of the normal 12 months.

Serious offense

Of course, if someone hurts or kills another person while boating under the influence, the penalties are much more serious.

Boat accidents can cause injury not just from the collision, but also from passengers drowning and experiencing hypothermia when they fall into the water after an accident.

If you seriously injure someone while boating under the influence, you’ll face Class 6 felony charges.

This means you’ll face serious criminal penalties, including the loss of certain civil rights.

Specifically, a judge will impose a sentence of between 1 and 5 years in prison, OR a prison sentence of up to 12 months and/or a maximum of $2,500 in fines.

Additionally, you’ll lose your boating privileges for 2 years, and the judge will normally order you to attend substance abuse treatment.

You must also complete a boating safety course before regaining your boating license.

Civil Penalties for BUI

If you’re involved in a BUI accident, you also open yourself up to civil court proceedings.

If a BUI accident results in an injury or death, or damages property in any way, the opposing party may file a civil lawsuit against you.

Judges and juries tend to award sizable personal injury or wrongful death settlements in accidents where alcohol is involved.

These settlements include compensation for:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost earnings due to the injury
  • Lost future earnings due to a disability
  • Pain and suffering

For example, a family in Richmond recently reached a settlement of $4 million after a boating accident death.

They sued their son’s friend for crashing his boat while drunk, killing their son who was a passenger.

The fact that the driver was negligent and drove the boat while under the influence of alcohol made the case open-and-shut.

While this is an extreme example, even minor damages, such as bumping two boats together, can end in a civil lawsuit.

If a suit is filed against you, or you want to file a suit against someone who damaged you or your property with their boat, you should speak with an experienced personal injury attorney to go over your options.


one angler fishing on a misty lake.

Boaters may have a relaxed attitude about driving a boat while drinking, since the passengers can legally drink while the boat is in motion.

However, the laws for boating under the influence (BUI) are the same as those for drivers of cars and trucks.

In fact, an accident from a BUI can be even more dangerous. This is because passengers can be injured not only by the crash, but also by falling in the water afterwards.

If you find yourself charged with BUI, you should speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately.

Just like DUI, boating while under the influence of alcohol is a serious crime in Virginia that often results in harsh sentences.

You’ll want to talk with a lawyer about your case as soon as possible in order to present the strongest defense possible at your trial.

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