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Minnesota Increases Drunk Boating Enforcement

Minnesota law enforcement authorities and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources teamed up to announce they are stepping up their drunk boating enforcement efforts. The increased effort, designed to get intoxicated boaters off of Minnesota’s rivers and lakes, includes increasing the number of patrols near boat launches and waterways.

Legal Consequences for Drunk Boating in Minnesota

Although many recreational boaters do not consider intoxicated boating to be as serious as drunk driving, boating while intoxicated (BWI) carries serious penalties. The punishment for a BWI violation includes the following:

  • Maximum of up to 90 days in jail
  • Maximum fine up to $1,000
  • Suspension of boating license for 90 (boating season) days

While these consequences are significant, there are some factors that might permit the prosecutor to seek enhanced penalties. The crime will increase from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor (or potentially a felony, depending on the circumstances) if any of the following factors pertain to a BWI case:

  • Engaging in drunk boating with a child passenger under the age of 16
  • Prior violation for DUI, BWI, or a chemical test refusal during the preceding ten-year period
  • Boating with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .16 or above

When facing BWI charges compounded by any of these aggravating factors, the boater will face more severe penalties, including a mandatory period of incarceration, fines up to $3,000, forfeiture of your vessel, long-term monitoring, plate impoundment, suspension of both driving and boating licenses, and chemical dependency assessments.

Drunk Boating Compared to Drunk Driving in MN

Although the BWI laws in Minnesota are not particularly complex, they raise many questions from boaters. The primary distinction between BWI and DWI laws is that the “open container” and “physical control” aspects of the offenses do not apply.

When operating a boat, you do not commit an illegal act by having an open container of alcohol on the vessel. In fact, you do not commit a violation even if you have a drink in your hand or are sipping a drink while piloting the boat. However, you cannot have a BAC level that is over the legal limit or be operating your boat in a manner that indicates alcohol impairment.

The physical control element of DWI law also does not apply in cases of boating intoxication. Although you might be charged with DWI if you are standing near your vehicle or sleeping in the driver’s seat with the keys in your hand, you cannot be prosecuted for BWI if your boat is “…anchored, beached, moored, docked, or being rowed or propelled by non-mechanical means at the time of the offense.”

Although you should not be arrested for drunk boating when docked, we have seen situations where the officer claims that the boat was moved/operated while the pilot was intoxicated.

How BWI Arrests Happen in Minnesota

Any time law enforcement crosses paths with a boater they have reasonable suspicion to believe to be intoxicated, they have the power the stop the boater and investigate. What’s more, law enforcement officers have additional options for stopping a boat that is not available when it comes to motor vehicles. This includes approaching a boat to perform a water safety check. This could include ensuring there are life vests or identification numbers present on the boat. While a BWI arrest could happen anywhere, there are certain situations that are more likely than others to lead to a BWI arrest.

Law enforcement agencies typically congregate around areas like marinas where boats are usually launched. This gives the police the most viable targets for their BWI investigations.

Once the police make contact with a boater, they will immediately look for signs that will allow them to expand their investigation. There are two common pieces of evidence that could cause the police to shift their attention to a BWI investigation. The first involves obvious signs of intoxication. For example, the police could note that the boater smelled of alcohol or exhibited signs of diminished motor control. The second factor that could lead to a BWI investigation is the presence of alcohol in the boat. Open containers are one of the most prominent excuses the police use for pursuing a BWI investigation.

Misidentifying Signs of Intoxication

The unfortunate part of these investigations is police often misidentify signs of intoxication among boaters. Many of the signs that the police rely on in DWI cases are not valid on the water. Boaters frequently have red faces from sunburns, bloodshot eyes from the wind, and balance issues that have nothing to do with intoxication. Despite this fact, the police routinely list these factors as signs of intoxication in a BWI investigation.

Refusing a Blood, Breath, or Urine Test in MN

One of the primary ways the state can prove intoxication is by presenting the results of a blood, breath, or urine test. The results of these tests could establish whether or not the boater was at or above the legal limit. As is the case with a DWI charge, there are consequences that can follow refusing to submit these tests in a BWI case.

If an officer that is investigating a potential BWI asks the boater to submit to a breath test, they must do so or face additional criminal charges. The failure to submit to a breath test is treated as a gross misdemeanor. An individual with three or more prior convictions could even face felony charges for refusing to submit to a breath test.

There are different options available to a boater when the police asks for a blood or urine sample. In these cases, the boater has the right to reject a blood or urine test. However, they must submit to the alternative test offered by the police. For example, a boater that is suspected of BWI could refuse to give a blood sample when requested by the police without the fear of facing a refusal charge. However, after that refusal they must accept the officer’s request for a breath or urine test or risk additional charges for the refusal to submit a sample.

Potential BWI Defenses in Minnesota

You have options for fighting back against charges of BWI. Every BWI case is different, meaning that the ideal defense might not be the same from one case to another. Some of the most common defenses in BWI cases include:

  • Improper collection of a blood sample
  • Improper use of standard field sobriety on a boat
  • Violation of constitutional rights
  • Inaccurate breath or urine test results

Sometimes it is enough for the defense to point to the evidence offered by the state and allege it is not enough to secure a conviction. In other cases, the defense might even admit to drinking alcohol but make the case that the boater was not above the legal limit at the time of their arrest.

One situation where this could be the case involves the “rising blood alcohol” defense. This defense is used when a blood alcohol concentration test result shows a boater at or near the legal limit. Under this theory, the boater claims that their BAC was rising at the time of the test, which means that their BAC was below the legal limit when they were operating the boat.

Want More Information or Need Legal Advice?

If you have been arrested for BWI in Minneapolis or the surrounding areas of Minnesota, we invite you to speak to a Minneapolis BWI defense attorney at Gerald Miller, P.A. as soon as possible.

The sooner you contact us, the sooner we can start protecting your rights. Contact us today to schedule your free and confidential case evaluation.


Originally published October 28, 2016 and updated October 4, 2021.

About the author

Kyle Dreger

Kyle Dreger is a skilled DUI/DWI and Criminal Defense lawyer at Gerald Miller P.A. Kyle has received his law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law. He is also a professionally trained basketball player.

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