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Will I lose my driver’s license if I get a BWI?

Minnesota: The land of 10,000 lakes. It’s the land of even more boaters – and more chances for a DWI arrest. 

As May approaches, Minnesotans begin to peel off the layers that kept them snug all winter and start to embrace warmer temperatures. We are active people, and we appreciate, embrace and celebrate our short summers. For many of us, that includes boating  – and partying on our boats – every weekend. 

Check out Lake Calhoun or Lake Minnetonka on any given Saturday in May, June or July and the they might seem like huge floating bars or nightclubs – only during the day. While drinking and boating is fun and in most cases harmless, law enforcement is always on the lookout for boaters who overindulge – and they won’t hesitate to issue a DWI for it. 

That’s right. You can get a DWI in Minnesota for operating a motor boat, pontoon boat or other watercraft if your blood alcohol level exceeds 0.8, the legal driving limit in our state and in most states in U.S. 

Many states refer to a drunk driving charge as DUI. Minnesota law calls it DWI, which stands for driving while impaired or driving while intoxicated. The citation for drunken boating, meanwhile, is often referred to as a BWI, or boating while intoxicated. 

A BWI is a Serious Charge  

Think a BWI is no big deal compared to drunk driving? Think again. You will lose your license to operate a motor vehicle if you are convicted of BWI on a Minnesota lake, river or other waterway. 

Other criminal consequences of a BWI conviction in Minnesota all but mirror those of a DWI conviction in the state. If a judge in Hennepin County or elsewhere finds you guilty of even the lowest level boating while intoxicated charge, for a misdemeanor you could face: 

  • Up to 90 days in jail
  • A $1,000 fine
  • The suspension of your boating license for 90 days during the boating season, which ensures violators don’t lose their boating license in the off season and during the winter months when the lakes are frozen anyway. 

Little Alan’s Law 

A new law that took effect Aug. 1, 2018, made it illegal for Minnesotans convicted of DWI to drive snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and boats in addition to cars, trucks and vans while their driver’s licenses are suspended or revoked. It also means that if you are convicted of boating while intoxicated, your driver’s license will be suspended andyou cannot operate an ATV, motorboat or snowmobile for a year.

State lawmakers introduced the measure following the February 2018 death of an 8-year-old boy who was killed by snowmobiler who plowed through his family’s ice fishing spot on Chisago Lake. 

Alan Geisenkoetter Jr. and his dad were setting up their fish house as the snowmobile tore through their spot and struck them. Both were thrown across the ice. The father, Alan Geisenkoetter Sr., was injured but recovered. 

A grand jury indicted the accused snowmobiler, Eric J. Coleman of Chisago City. He was charged with third-degree murder, criminal vehicular homicide and DWI; he faces 12 years in prison on the murder charge if convicted.

Prosecutors learned that Coleman’s driver’s license had been revoked after multiple DWI convictions. That discovery promoted lawmakers to act.

Before the change in the law, motorists convicted of DWI whose license was suspended or revoked were still legally allowed to operate snowmobiles, ATVs and boats. At the same time, if they were convicted of operating a boat, ATV or snowmobile while intoxicated, they could still legally drive. No more. 

“We have zero tolerance for people who endanger themselves and other people by operating a motor vehicle or recreational vehicle while they’re intoxicated,” Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the Minnesota DNR Enforcement Division, said in a statement posted on the agency’s website. “This new law should send the message that drinking and driving – no matter what the vehicle – isn’t acceptable and the consequences are severe.”

The new law, called “Little Alan’s Law,” was introduced as a way to close what lawmakers had seen as a loophole in the state’s driving while impaired law. Little Alan’s Law broadens the state driving while impaired while impaired laws, regardless of whether the vehicle being operated is a car, truck, van, snowmobile, ATV – or a boat. Lawmakers in approving Little Alan’s Law also changed the underaged driving and driving criminal offenses to include snowmobiles, ATVs and boats. All three had been excluded before the provisions were tweaked. 

Aggravated BWI 

First-time BWI offenders are subject to chemical use assessments, conditional release and license plate impoundment – just like drivers convicted of driving while impaired or intoxicated. 

A BWI is considered a misdemeanor if there are no extenuating circumstances. However, it will increase to a gross misdemeanor or a felony if any of the following occurred: 

  • There was a passenger under the age of 16
  • The boater has a prior DWI or BWI within the last 10 years 
  • The boater had blood alcohol concentration of .16 or above, which is twice the legal limit. 

A prosecutor might look at the BWI arrest and seek bigger punishments as he or she sees fit. When BWI charges are compounded by aggravating factors like the ones listed above, the boater will certainly face more severe penalties. He or she could receive jail time, fines up to $3,000, forfeiture of the vessel, long-term ankle monitoring, license plate impoundment, suspension of both driving and boating licenses and mandatory chemical dependency testing. 


There are some differences between a DWI and a BWI; namely, between “open container” and “physical control.” 

If you’re in a car and have a drink in your hand, you are committing a crime even if the car isn’t running. When operating a boat, though, it’s legal to have an open container of alcohol on the vessel. You can even have a drink and drive a boat while sipping it. A person driving a boat just cannot drink enough to have a BAC that is over the legal limit or be visibly drunk.  

The physical control element of DWI law also does not apply in cases of drunken boating. You can be arrested for DWI if you are standing next to your car or sleeping in the driver’s seat with the keys in your hand. If you’re on the lake with your boat anchored, beached, moored, docked, – or if it is being rowed or propelled – you can’t be convicted of boating while intoxicated. Arrests do happen; officers have claimed the boater was seen driving the boat drunk. 

Minnesotans Love Their Boats 

The DNR reports there are roughly 15 watercraft for every 100 Minnesotans, according to a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Another report – this one from WCCO – puts it another way: One of every six Minnesotans has a boat. In 2016, there were 818,000 boats registered with the DNR. Only Florida has more boat owners; Minnesota beats neighboring Wisconsin as well as Michigan and California. 

With motorboats make up 68 percent of all registered boats in Minnesota, there is cause for concern as people combine high speeds and heavy drinking. Last year, there were 14 boating fatalities and 64 non-fatal boating accidents. It’s unclear whether alcohol contributed to any of the crashes.

BWI Enforcement on the Rise 

Minnesota authorities and the DNR have in recent years teamed up to increase their drunken boating enforcement efforts. The effort to get intoxicated boaters off of Minnesota’s rivers and lakes includes increasing the number of patrols near boat launches and waterways. 

Officers conduct field sobriety tests on rivers and lakes. Instead of walking in a straight line like on the side of the road, those suspected of BWI are asked to move their fists one at a time, “in a step-like fashion, away from their body,” according to another Star Tribune piece.  

Summer holiday weekends – Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day – are especially ripe for enforcement BWI crackdowns. Over the 2017 Fourth of July weekend, for example, officials from the National Park Service, the Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR, local Sheriff’s Offices and the Minnesota State Patrol, partnered with officers from other local agencies to crack down on drunken boating. Last year a similar effort was made, and this year will likely be no different. 

The Operation Dry Water campaign is a national effort to deter boating under the influence. Minnesota participates in the program.  

“Drunk boating is drunken driving. They’re one and the same,” said Lt. Adam Block of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at a press conference last year announcing the program. 

Sometimes overzealous law enforcement results in mistaken breathalyzer tests (which you should always refuse anyway) and other factors that can lead to a case dismissal. 

Civil BWI Consequences 

The civil and personal headaches that come with a BWI conviction are similar to that of the aftermath of a driving while impaired conviction. It’s a shadow that follows you around and is challenging to shake. A BWI conviction can lead to: 

  • Higher vehicle insurance rates. A misdemeanor BWI conviction could cause your auto insurance rates to skyrocket. Rates will eventually go down, but expect to pay more for a few years. You also could be required to obtain SR-22 insurance for high-risk drivers, which is another expense. You could also lose your current insurance coverage if your policy decides to cancel you because of a BWI conviction, since you will lose your driver’s license too. 
  • A blemished record that could diminish job prospects. Most companies check out the criminal records of job candidates. Landlords also conduct background checks before approving a lease agreement. Men and women convicted of BWI are sometimes viewed by others as being reckless, immature or as having an alcohol or drug problem.

Bottom line? Asking a judge to dismiss the case or convincing a prosecutor to reduce the charges are the best options for most defendants arrested for BWI. 

Get in touch as soon after your arrest as possible. Our team can help you put this behind you so you can enjoy the summer, either on the lake or off. Just leave the driving to someone else. 

About Gerald Miller and Associates 

A drunk driving citation in Minnesota is known as a DWI, which stands for driving while impaired. Many states refer to the charge as a DUI, short for diving under the influence.

A Minnesota BWI stands for boating while intoxicated. 

Regardless of what authorities call it, a police officer can arrest someone on suspicion of DWI even if he or she hasn’t been drinking. In Minnesota, “impaired” can be applied to a person who is taking legal prescription drugs or even someone who is overly tired. It’s all up to the discretion of the arresting officer.

Sound like you or someone you know? Contact the experienced Minnesota DWI attorneys Gerald Miller, P.A. Our expert team will look at your case and determine the best course of action. We will guide you through the process, working toward a positive outcome no matter the circumstances of the arrest.

We are often asked, “Should I contest this case?” Yes. You should, absolutely, positively 100 percent of the time. Every arrest is different; few are open and shut cases. We look at every aspect of the case, from time of the arrest to the officer’s actions to the accuracy of your Breathalyzer test. There is always hope.

What makes Gerald Miller different from other Minnesota criminal defense lawyers?

The Minneapolis lawyers at Gerald Miller handle all aspects of criminal law across the Twin Cities and statewide – the team can defend you on traffic citations, drug charges, theft, weapons charges, probation and parole violations and more – but they have specialized in DWIs for decades. A DWI affects your driving ability, your finances and your professional reputation. Don’t let one mistake hinder a promising future.

Call the attorneys at Gerald Miller today at 612-440-4610. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to give you some answers, a little hope and plenty of well-deserved peace of mind.

You can email us here. We can also be reached on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

About the author

Gerald Miller

Gerald Miller is a top-notch and experienced DWI/DUI lawyer at Gerald Miller P.A. in Minneapolis, MN. He has more than 35 years of experience in Criminal Defense practice. He has also been a mentor to numerous DUI/DWI defense attorneys.

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