Target 2 Investigates: Are drunk boating laws watered down?

Source: MGN Online
Source: MGN Online(KALB)
Published: May. 22, 2017 at 7:47 PM CDT
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It's National Safe Boating Week and the Memorial Day weekend is just days away. You'll hear warnings from police: don't drink and drive a boat.

Target 2 found hundreds of people have been caught operating a boat impaired the last two years in Wisconsin, known as a BUI -- boating under the influence.

And, as we dug through records, we found many of those drunk boaters have a long history of drunk driving on the roads, but we discovered Wisconsin's law doesn't consider those offenses the same thing.

Target 2 dug through the cases to find out if the state has a watered down law.

A body camera worn by a DNR conservation warden in Northern Wisconsin in 2011 captured a field sobriety test and arrest of a man stopped for boating under the influence.

"How much have you had to drink today?"

The video shows him failing those tests and blowing a preliminary 0.124 blood alcohol level in a Breathalyzer. The legal limiting for operating a boat is the same as on the road, 0.08.

DNR conservation warden Darren Kuhn has seen similar incidents in Northeast Wisconsin.

"One. One is too many," Kuhn said.

He's conducted field sobriety tests on dozens of boaters in his nearly 20-year career.

"I'll have somebody that's suspected of intoxicated boat operation just sit on the back seat, comfortable and calm, run the procedure right there."

He has a long list of concerns with a person drunk or high behind the wheel of a boat.

"Everyone in a car knows to slam on the brakes. There are no brakes on the boat. There are no seat belts on the boat. There are no airbags on the boat," Kuhn said.

In 2014, a passenger was hurt when the boat he was in tried to maneuver under a bridge on the East River in Green Bay.

Capt. Kevin Warych is a member of the Green Bay Police Marine Unit. He remembers, "That person in the crash had sustained very serious injuries where we thought it was going to be fatal."

He survived. The operator of the boat was arrested for being drunk.

It is just as dangerous on the water as on the road, though? "As a conservation warden," Kuhn said, "I would almost argue more."

But if a drunken boater makes it back to land, there's a new risk.

"Now they're behind a car, towing a trailer through the city streets of Green Bay or the interstates that surround us and put all the motorists at risk," Kuhn said.

Target 2 found it has happened.

"I arrested him for drunk boating on the water, and then Green Bay Police Department arrested him for drunk driving in the car," Kuhn recalled.

In that case, the courts dismissed the BUI and charged the man with OWI.

As we dug into the law, Target 2 found it wouldn't have mattered when it comes to penalties.

Wisconsin law views boating under the influence and driving under the influence as two completely different violations.

The DNR says it's one of the first things boaters ask them.

A boater is on camera telling a conservation warden, "I have an OWI."

"Not in the boat, though, right?" the warden asks.

"No," the boater says.

"Yeah, it'll only count if you've got one in the boat."

Target 2 wanted to know how often people cited for BUI also have records for driving drunk.

We filed more than a dozen open records requests for BUIs in WBAY's 14-county viewing area from 2015 and 2016. We received a list of 57 people.

Target 2 searched the court records of those same people and found 17 -- about 30 percent -- have been charged with drunken driving on the road.

Nine drivers had a third or fourth offense, serving jail or prison time for OWI.

"Concerning would be a better word," Kuhn said. "That means our people that are driving our cars or the people that we're not catching on the water are continuing to drive their vehicles home."

How are they not caught?

Kuhn tells Target 2 part of the reason may be with how hard it is to stop boaters.

"No center lines, no fog lines, nothing that says you can't weave on the shipping channel if you want. So yeah, there has to be a reasonable suspicion of a violation to make that stop," Kuhn said. "There isn't a law that says you can't weave on the water."

He can stop someone for expired registration, but those stickers are hard to see at night.

Many of the cases Target 2 found show boaters were also cited for speeding or not having their lights on after dark.

But Kuhn said boaters know that's on the short list of reasons for a stop and try to outsmart the patrols.

"A lot of times what they will do is, to try to avoid being detected, is to put the boat lights on prior to going into the establishment, or instead of increasing speeds on the stretch along the Fox River where they can, they'll maintain that slow speed to make the detection that much more difficult," Kuhn said. "And it works."

But it doesn't take away the concern.

"They're still going to a boat trailer, and once they get out onto the open bay, where there's all sorts of navigational hazards between buoys and shoals and rock bars, it's scary. It's scary."

Penalties for first-offense boating and driving while intoxicated are similar: Both are simply fines.

But a BUI does not impact your driver's license.

State lawmakers have made a few attempts in the last decade to change the law so BUIs and OWIs are counted together for penalties, but they never gained enough support.