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September 04, 2009
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Tom Burrell Patrolling the Waterways
with Tom Burrell

This weekend, DUI may start out as BUI

Most adults know it’s illegal to drive a car while under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substance. Furthermore, those same people understand that if they do drive under the influence, they run the risk of being arrested, and if convicted, going to jail or paying a substantial fine.

Maybe you can tell me why many of these same individuals think it is acceptable to operate — that is to say “drive” — their boats while under the influence. You can bet that this weekend — which most recognize as the unofficial end of summer — will present hundreds (possibly even thousands) of instances in which a drunk is at the helm of their boat.

Every state in the nation has laws against driving under the influence and in each case there are statutes for the operation of motorboats. Yet, I have witnessed an increase in Boating Under the Influence during every year I have been involved in marine enforcement and in every jurisdiction in which I have been stationed. Furthermore, it has been my experience that BUIs are not restricted to only “party areas” but occur on every waterway and involve every type of boat from the smallest johnboat to the most lavish yacht.

You may thinking that you’re going to spend the holiday weekend patrolling the center city, only catching a glimpse of the harbor as you pass on the way to your next call. Why should you be concerned, right? Just like the impaired driver who gets behind the wheel of the family station wagon, those who get behind the helm of their family ski boat puts everyone at risk. More to your point of why you should care: most of these operators will eventually get in their vehicle and attempt to travel home, or elsewhere, if they are not apprehended first.

As every officer knows, we can’t be everywhere. This is especially true when you consider the limited number of marine units available in most jurisdictions. Therefore, any officer who patrols near a major boating pool must be ready to do their part. This means taking the knowledge that we all have concerning DUI enforcement and learning how to apply to BUIs as well.

First, patrol officers need to understand how the laws within their jurisdiction apply to BUI. In some areas it is simply a classification under the regular DUI laws. However, many states have specific regulations pertaining to BUI, often defined within the laws specific to boat operation. Second, patrol officers need to understand what authority they have specific to boating enforcement and when that authority kicks in. Can you stop a boat as it approaches the local marina or do you need to wait until the operator comes ashore? Once you have encountered an impaired operator can you make the arrest or do you need to have a marine patrol officer assist you? The easiest way to accomplish this is by making contact with your local marine patrol ahead of time.

Next, you need to understand what constitutes probable cause needed to make a stop in the marine enforcement community. While there are no center lines to cross or stop signs to run, there are equivalent violations such as no wake zones. Likewise, there are actions which, when observed, may indicate impairment. Just as a driver who continually crosses the center line or stops in the center of an intersection, the boat operator who follows too closely or uses his spot light to find his way to the marina may have had too much to drink. Becoming familiar with these behaviors will allow you take action when needed.

Finally, you need to be aware of how to evaluate the suspected operator for impairment. While Standard Field Sobriety Tests work well along the highway, they often involve tests of balance and coordination which may have been affected simply by having been on the water. To overcome this you must either wait 20 minutes to allow the suspect to regain their “land legs” or resort to alternative Field Coordination Tests.

By utilizing tests such as “Finger to Nose” or “Backwards Count” or “Finger Count” you can gain an accurate determination of the operator’s impairment and insure that your results will not be subject to claims of non-alcohol related explanations at court. While these may seem foreign or archaic by today’s standards, many were widely utilized prior to SFSTs being adopted and are still commonly accepted within the maritime community. Again, basic instructions and legal precedent for these tests can be obtained from your local marine patrol or USCG Station.

Once probable cause to do so has been established, most jurisdictions require that BUI suspects be processed in the same manner as those arrested for DUI. This includes not only the ability to request chemical testing of blood, breath or urine but also additional penalties for operators who refuse such testing, if a similar penalty exists for DUI suspects who behave in a similar manner.

Just as when you performed your first DUI arrest, you face the possibility that your first BUI will be a learning experience which may end in the case being dismissed because you overlooked a simple but unforeseen complication. You should expect an experienced defense attorney to take issue with you transition from beat cop to water dog. However, every officer has the ability to recognize an impaired operator regardless of what they were driving and your experience will go a long way in establishing the credibility of your testimony.

Bottom line: impaired operators place the public at risk regardless of where they are or what they are driving. Likewise, our duty to protect and serve requires that we take action to recognize and apprehend these suspects regardless of where we may patrol.


About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.





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