What is the Difference Between a DUI and a BUI?

In 2020, Florida had the highest number of boating-related deaths by far. We also had the highest number of alcohol-related boating deaths of any other state, a distinction Florida has held for five straight years. As a result of the high frequency of accidents, injuries, and deaths involving boaters operating under the influence of alcohol or another chemical substance, the law punishes boaters operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI) virtually the same way it does drivers who commit DUI on land. 


If you were arrested and charged with Boating Under the Influence (BUI) in the Tampa or St. Petersburg area, the BUI and DUI defense lawyers at the Stechschulte Nell law firm will aggressively defend you and protect your legal rights to minimize the chances of your conviction.  


We have extensive experience defending clients facing BUI charges, an offense requiring your lawyer to fully understand the smallest details the prosecution must prove to win the case. Our focused attention to detail often results in our clients winning either a dismissal, an acquittal, or reduction of the charges. Call our office today for help. 

Similarities Between BUI and DUI in Florida 


The law defines “BUI” and “DUI” in the same way, requiring the prosecutor to prove the same fact with only the vehicles differing.  


A person is guilty of Boating Under the Influence if the person is operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or a chemical substance (drugs) to the extent that 


  1. the person’s normal faculties are impaired, or 
  2. the person’s blood alcohol content or breath alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 or higher. 

That is the same proof required to convict an automobile driver of DUI. 


Another important similarity is the penalty imposed for first offense BUI and first offense DUI. Both offenses can result in up to six months in jail, a one-year license suspension, 50 hours of community service, a fine between $500 and $1,000, a ten-day impound of the vessel or the vehicle, and probation. However, in each case, certain aggravating facts can invite harsher punishment, even for first offenses: 


  • an accident was involved 
  • BAC over 0.15 
  • a person younger than 18 years old was on board 
  • a person suffered a minor injury (serious injury means possible 5 years in prison and $5,000 fine.) 
  • death of another person (possible increase to a felony carrying up to 15years or 30 years) 


A second or subsequent offense of either BUI or DUI increases the penalties substantially, and both offenses can serve as a prior offense for the other. A first offense DUI followed by a first offense BUI means the BUI is a second offense, and vice versa. If they occur within five years, jail is mandatory and the maximum jail time increases from six months to nine months or more, depending on other aggravating facts. 


Differences Between BUI and DUI 


Despite many similarities, there are some important differences between a BUI and a DUI in Florida. First, the authorities who are empowered to pull over a boater suspected of BUI include the local police, state police, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Fish and Wildlife officers. (See “Getting Pulled Over” below.) 


A second difference between the BUI and DUI is that you may be convicted of BUI even if you are not driving the boat. Instead, in many cases, the main fact is that the person “in command” of the vessel can be guilty of BUI if another person is driving, a minor for example. 


Another very significant difference between BUI and DUI is what we call the “Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, (SFSTs). The fact that the events are occurring on the water instead of on solid ground makes the usual group of roadside field sobriety tests impractical. You can’t perform a walk-and-turn or heel-to-toe test when your boat is rocking. (See “Seated Field Sobriety Tests” below.) 


A fourth significant difference between BUI and DUI relates to Refusal of a Chemical Test. Just as when driving on land, refusing to submit to a chemical test after a lawful arrest on suspicion of BUI is an offense and carries a $500 fine. However, failing to pay the $500 fine within 30 days is a first-degree misdemeanor carrying up to one year in jail. The difference is that a first offense BUI-related Refusal of Chemical Test does not trigger a suspension of your driver’s license. And unlike with the actual BUI and DUI offenses, neither a BUI refusal nor a DUI refusal counts as a prior offense for the other.  


Getting Pulled Over in a Boat 


When operating a boat (any watercraft, barge, or airboat other than a seaplane), authorities can pull you over based only on reasonable suspicion of BUI. Any boater can be pulled over for an administrative safety inspection by the Coast Guard. This is an important point because stopping a boater on the water to inspect or to investigate a suspected BUI is not considered an “arrest.” 


Since a suspected boater is not necessarily under arrest merely by being stopped, police need not recite Miranda warnings before questioning. But if a boater (or a person in command) appears obviously to be intoxicated and police immediately decide to take them into custody, then the need for Miranda warnings before questioning is a contestable issue. 


Miranda is required for any “custodial interrogation.” In the context of a BUI arrest, if the suspect is removed from the boat for transport to a police station or handcuffed, or they reasonably believe they are not free to leave, then the law considers them to be in custody. Unless Miranda warnings are recited and understood by the suspect, any answers to questions they provide should be inadmissible as evidence against them in court. And the police must have “probable cause” before making an arrest, not merely reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed. 


Seated Field Sobriety Tests 


The familiar roadside Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) police use to test the degree of a driver’s alcohol impairment don’t work on the water. A boater cannot attempt the “walk-and-turn,” the “one-legged stand,” or any other standing dexterity test while their vessel is bobbing and rocking on the water. 


Instead, police investigating BUI suspects usually use “seated field sobriety tests” designed to test the same “normal faculties” that are tested on land with the roadside standard field sobriety tests. Are these “seated” tests a reliable measure of a person’s BAC as the standard roadside tests are purported to be? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) considered years of studies and error rates before endorsing the SFTSs for use on land. They have never certified or endorsed the seated version of the tests used in most BUI cases.  


Since the police rely on these seated sobriety tests to provide probable cause to arrest a suspected BUI boater, it is questionable whether these tests’ results demonstrate a suspect’s degree of alcohol or drug-related impairment.  


It’s true that the “seated field sobriety tests” do operate on a similar theory as the roadside tests, but even the NHTSA-certified roadside tests have at least a 20% error rate in identifying alcohol impairment when the tests were administered correctly. And studies have demonstrated that police administer the tests incorrectly 47% of the time. 


Get the Experienced, Aggressive BUI Defense Lawyers in Tampa 


The criminal defense lawyers at Tampa’s Stechschulte Nell law firm apply their many years of BUI and DUI practice to every new client they represent. Boating Under the Influence in Florida is considered a serious offense, and the stigma that a BUI conviction carries will be a public embarrassment and even an economic disadvantage for many years to come.  


Make sure your BUI lawyers examine every bit of evidence and use all the legal challenges in your case to protect you from an unjust or unnecessary BUI conviction. Contact Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law today; 813-280-1244.  


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