Articles on South Carolina Law

South Carolina BUI Laws: Consequences, Offenses, Jail Time

by | Apr 13, 2020 | Criminal Defense, DUI, Federal Crimes in SC

As summer approaches in South Carolina, people are washing the pollen off their boats and getting geared up for another summer of memories on the water with their friends and family. Some things you may be thinking about is getting out those fishing poles and tackle boxes for a fun day of fishing.

Do the brake lights work on your boat trailer? Ah, those pesky brake lights. Every year they seem to get a “short” in them. Is the boat gassed up? Where’s the sunscreen and beach towels? Do we have enough life jackets and a whistle in case we are stopped by DNR? Where is the bluetooth speaker so we can have music on the boat? Do we need ice? Where are the beers? Did anyone bring waters or gatorade? 

You have thought of every detail for a perfect day on the beach to kick off the summer. Probably no one (other than me) thinks about Boating Under the Influence (BUI) when making summer boating plans. But it is a reality that everyone should consider who is not only operating a boat, but even riding on a boat. Boat safety is so important for your boat and for other boaters on the water.

In this article you will learn:

  • The difference between misdemeanor and felony boating under the influence charges;
  • The penalties for a boating under the influence conviction;
  • Helpful tips for avoiding BUI charges; and
  • What to do and what not to do when on the water.

Boating Under the Influence Charges in SC

Believe me, I want everyone to have as much fun on the water as possible. But I also don’t want anyone to be under the influence while operating a boat.

Boating under the influence is very dangerous for many reasons. Some people are not used to driving boats. Even if you are an experienced boater, your equilibrium can still be thrown off by the waves and moving boat. In the hot sun and humidity you may become thirsty and drink alcohol because you forgot to bring water. You may not eat to counter the amount of alcohol you are consuming. There are so many reasons why, before you know it, without even realizing it, you are boating under the influence.

Remember, boating under the influence doesn’t just mean being under the influence of alcohol – it can be under the influence of any substance (legal or illegal) that alters your ability to operate a motor vehicle.

“Boat Landing” Cases

Another very important consideration is if you are boating under the influence and you get to the landing or marina to park or drive your boat unto the boat trailer, you may get in your truck or SUV to drive home. Beware! That is the time you could be in danger of getting a Driving Under the Influence charge! It is not uncommon for law enforcement to police the public boat landings and marinas for this very thing.

I have handled numerous “boat landing” cases. If you are not a regular boater, it’s no secret that people get incredibly frustrated at boat landings. In the lowcountry if you are working against the tides or strong currents, you can easily risk crashing your boat on the dock. You are tired, hot, and hungry. You have a headache from the sun and all you can think about is how long it’s going to take to unload and wash the boat once you get home. If you are lucky you also will be cleaning and frying the fish you caught.

You may get frustrated with the person in the boat if you are on the dock trying to throw the tie in ropes and you miss the throw and the rope falls into the saltwater. Other boaters may be waiting in line to put their boats in and you may feel embarrassed or just angry that the loading is not going smoothly.

Know that police are watching these areas. Keep your cool. Take your time. It’s not worth getting arrested for assault and battery or domestic violence at the boat landing. Believe me, it happens. I have prosecuted those cases and I have defended them! Don’t get arrested for open container, possession of drugs, domestic violence, or anything at the boat landing or driving away from the boat landing. And take it easy on the people trying to help you. They want to get the boat loaded and get out of there as quickly as you do.

BUI Charges & Penalties

First, we will look at some legal “jargon” called informed consent. Similar to the motor vehicle Driving Under the Influence statute. When you are operating a boat, you are presumed to have given your implied consent to agree to taking a blood or breath test if ever arrested for BUI. Many people do not realize this when they are operating a boat. If you refuse a blood or breath test for a BUI, there will be consequences.

Misdemeanor Boating Under the Influence Charges

South Carolina has 2 main requirements to prove in a BUI. These requirements are the same whether the BUI ends up being a misdemeanor or a felony:

  1. The boat driver must be proved to be the one operating the boat; and
  2. The boat driver did so while materially and appreciably impaired (the boat driver was under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs, or legal drugs, or some other substance, or a combination of some or all of them)

In SC, it is illegal to operate a moving motorized water device or water device while on the water under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both. This crime is known as Boating Under the Influence. The agency that may be arresting someone for BUI could be a sheriff’s department, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), or any law enforcement agency.

What is the legal limit for misdemeanor BUI?

There is no “legal limit” per se. The legal limit for operating a motor vehicle is .08% and this would be comparable to a BUI. The real threshold is if the boat driver is “materially and appreciably impaired,” meaning it’s up to the arresting officer to interpret the field sobriety tests and the blood/breath tests. 

Penalties for Misdemeanor BUI Convictions

If you have never been convicted of a previous BUI, you will be charged with BUI 1st. However, if you have had a conviction for BUI in the last 10 years, you may be charged with BUI 2nd, BUI 3rd, and so on, depending on how many BUI convictions you have on your record. 

Only BUI convictions within the past 10 years of the last offense will count as a prior BUI conviction. If your prior BUI conviction falls outside of the 10 year timeframe, you will be charged with BUI 1st since the BUI convictions from over 10 years ago are not taken into consideration.

Misdemeanor BUI conviction, 1st offense

You could be facing a $200 fine plus court costs or 48 hours to 30 days in jail. If 48 hours of jail time is ordered, the judge can instead order community service hours; this can be turned down by the defendant and instead serve jail time. You will lose your privilege of operating a boat for 6 months.

Misdemeanor BUI conviction, 2nd offense

You could be facing a $2,000-5,000 plus court costs fine AND 48 hours to 1 year in jail. The fine can’t be suspended to less than $1,000. The Court can order community service instead of jail time, but not less than 10 days. You will lose your privilege of operating a boat for 1 year.

Misdemeanor BUI conviction, 3rd offense

You could be facing a $3,000-6,000 fine plus court costs AND 60 days to 3 years in jail. You will lose your privilege of operating a boat for 2 years.

All convictions under this misdemeanor BUI conviction section require those accused to complete a mandatory boating safety education program. You are responsible for the costs of this program.

Misdemeanor BUI Involving Damage to Property/Less Than Great Bodily Injury

If you damage property that does not belong to you during the commission of your misdemeanor BUI, and the amount of property damage rises to a level of misdemeanor BUI, you could be charged with misdemeanor BUI involving damage to property or less than great bodily injury. The property damage or bodily injury must be to another’s property or person, not your own.

If, during the course of committing a misdemeanor BUI, you cause bodily injury to someone and the bodily injury is classified under the statute as “less than great bodily injury,” you can be charged with misdemeanor BUI involving damage to property or less than great bodily injury.

Penalties for BUI Involving Damage to Property/Less Than Great Bodily Injury Convictions

If you are convicted of misdemeanor BUI involving damage to property or less than great bodily injury, you could be fined at least $500 plus court costs or 0-30 days in jail, or both.

Additionally, you will lose your privileges to operate a boat for 1 year. This one year period begins once you finish serving your jail time. Your time in jail does not count towards serving this one year of suspension of your boating privileges.

Felony Boating Under the Influence Charges

It is against the law in SC to:

  1. Operate a boat on the water while under the influence of alcohol, drugs (legal or illegal), or a combination of the two; AND 
  2. Cause great bodily injury or death of a person other than himself.

In order for someone to be convicted of Felony BUI in SC, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  1. The accused was operating the boat; and
  2. The accused was materially and appreciably impaired; and 
  3. Defendant caused the victim’s great bodily injuries and/or death if death results.

What is great bodily injury?

In SC, great bodily injury is Injury that creates a substantial risk of death or causes serious permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ of the victim.

Penalties for Felony BUI Convictions

A convicted felon loses certain constitutional rights, such as the right to vote. There are many other very serious consequences of becoming a convicted felon.

The penalties for a conviction of felony BUI in SC differ depending on the severity of injury that you cause the victim or victims to suffer.

If, as a result of your Felony BUI conviction in SC, the victim suffers great bodily injury, the consequences are:

  • $5,000-10,000 fine plus court costs AND 30 days to 15 years in prison.

If, as a result of your Felony BUI conviction in SC, one or more victims die, the consequences are:

  • $10,000-25,000 fine plus court costs AND 1 year to 25 years in prison.

When a judge is sentencing someone for felony BUI, no part of the sentence may be suspended. Probation is not an option for a conviction of Felony BUI. If you are convicted of felony BUI in SC, you will lose your privilege to operate a boat for 3 years. This suspension period begins after you have served your jail/ prison time. You do not get credit for the suspension while you are serving time in jail/ prison. A conviction for felony BUI is not a crime that is eligible for expungement

Is it illegal to hold a beer while operating a boat?

This is a question I get asked often, so I thought I would include in this blog article. I would not recommend ever holding a beer or alcoholic beverage while operating a boat. I would not recommend having a beer in a coozie or alcoholic beverage in cupholders around where the driver of the boat is. Even if the driver of the boat is not intoxicated or under the influence, having an alcoholic beverage or beer near the driver could give law enforcement reasonable suspicion to pull over your boat and possibly search the boat.

The best practice is to not consume any alcoholic beverage while operating a boat. There may be other boat drivers that are not so careful and as a boat operator you should always be on the lookout for other boaters who are under the influence. Remember there are no “brakes'' on boats. Operating a boat under the influence combined with careless boat operators is a terrible combination.

Don’t let this happen to you! Be a responsible boater. No one who gets a BUI ever sets out to hurt someone, but once it happens, there is no turning back. Avoid these tragic situations by operating a boat responsibly. 

Ways to Avoid Getting a BUI Charge

The easiest way to avoid a BUI charge is not to operate a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol! Also, set out some rules for people getting on your boat: do not allow them to bring drugs on your boat. If you are pulled over and law enforcement has reason to search your boat, you may be responsible for the illegal substances your passengers bring onto the boat.

Create a checklist on your phone or put a note on your refrigerator to remind you each time what you need for safely operating your boat. Don’t forget to include on the list bottled water or non-alcoholic beverages.

Keep the requisite amount of life jackets, whistle, flares, flashlights and other safety equipment on your boat in case you are stopped by law enforcement. Assume you will be stopped by law enforcement and have your safety equipment handy for law enforcement.

Do not be rude to law enforcement in the event that you are pulled over. Be courteous! Stop immediately when you are being pulled over. Law enforcement is simply doing their job and you and your passengers need to be respectful to law enforcement, even if you feel you have been pulled over for a bogus reason.

You are responsible for the conduct of your passengers. Do not draw the attention of law enforcement to your boat by obeying the SC boating laws.

Here are a few examples of things to do and what not to do:

  • Do not let passengers hang their legs and arms over the side of your boat.
  • Do not overload your boat with passengers. If the maximum amount is 9 people on your boat, don’t try to cram 14 (same with weight capacity).
  • Do not blast loud music, shout, or launch fireworks from your boat and then get surprised when you are pulled over by law enforcement.
  • Have a talk with your passengers before you put your boat in the water or at the beginning of your boat trip with any rules or laws that should be followed.
  • Have your boat’s registration and proof of insurance handy and up to date.
  • Do not let trash fly out of your boat. You are responsible for trash that accidentally flies out of your boat.
  • Abide by the “no wake” zone signs. Even if you are in a hurry to get somewhere, have respect for dock owners. You would not want someone trashing your dock that you worked hard to build. The docks take a beating with the salt water and tides. You don’t need to cause unnecessary property damage to docks because you are in a hurry, or it seems to not be “cool” to slow down in no wake zones. The property owners will call you into law enforcement. They may even have dock cameras.
  • Have your numbers clearly displayed on the side of your boat. Follow the rules of which sides they should be displayed and how. Make them large enough to be seen from a distance.
  • Watch the tides. If you park your boat on a sandbar and the tides are going out, you could get stuck there for hours. You don’t want law enforcement to be drawn to your boat because you were too drunk to notice it was being trapped on a sandbar. People seem to drink more and more when this happens. They may not have food. It’s not a good situation.
  • Do not mess with the wildlife. Just because alligators are floating in the same area where you are doesn’t mean you need to drive over to them, throw objects at them, or swim with them. Use your brain. Don’t bother the dolphins. Yes, they are cute, but they are in their wild habitat. Leave them alone. Don’t bother sea turtles or their nests. Don’t feed the seagulls alka seltzer. Just leave the lowcountry wildlife alone! 
  • Do not dig holes at the beach and not cover them up when you are finished. The sea turtles can get trapped in those holes.
  • Do not shoot guns from your boat.
  • Be courteous and patient with others at the boat ramp. Also, don’t park illegally! If you are in a car with no trailer at the boat ramp, park in an appropriate parking spot.
  • Obtain the appropriate saltwater fishing license. Observe all saltwater fishing rules, including size and limits. For example, only male blue crabs should be kept and only if they are 5 inches from point to point. A great measuring device is a regular sized soda can. Avoid fishing or boating in areas that are prohibited.


Charged with BUI in South Carolina?

BUI cases can be fought. Don’t just plead guilty! A defense attorney can challenge the video of the arrest, breath or blood test, reports, statements, etc. 

Contact Susan Williams today for a free consultation.

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