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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Boating Under the Influence and Probable Cause

Here's some good news out of Iowa: it appears that incidents involving people boating under the influence of alcohol are on the decline. From this KCRG report:

A total of 78 full time Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officers cover Iowa's 99 counties. This summer those officers did get the help from 29 seasonal water patrol officers but that still means full timers have multiple counties under their care. And when you consider around 500 boats may be out on a typical holiday weekend just at Coralville Reservoir alone, catching someone boating under the influence can be a challenge.
. . .
"If a state trooper or deputy officer in the cities, they know 'okay they're going across the lines.' There's no lines on the water. There's no evidence left other than the wake," said [Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, Eric] Wright.
By late July at Coralville Reservoir only three people had been arrested this summer for the crime. If you think that number is low, you're not alone.
"There's been fairly heavy enforcement on Coralville itself and we're starting to see the effects of it."
Data obtained by I9 through an Iowa open records request shows BWI arrests at Coralville have been on the decline since at least 2014 when 33 people were charged. The numbers statewide show a similar story, arrests did spike however in 2015 when 47 people were arrested. Fast forward to July of this present year and that number drops to 29.
The consequences for boating under the influence are similar if you are caught driving a car drunk in Iowa but if you get a BWI there is nothing stopping you from losing your driving privileges out on the road. In fact, when I9 searched the names of people charged over the years with BWI we found several who also had OWIs on their record as well.
The report is a bit confusing -- particularly the second-to-last paragraph. It is unclear whether the 47 people were arrested statewide or in the Coralville reservoir alone (the context suggests that it is in Coralville alone). With that number in the mix, the claim that arrests have been on the decline since 2014 isn't accurate - rather the arrests seem to have been on the decline since 2015 (assuming 2016 had fewer than 47 arrests, but more than 29).

But I did not highlight this story or spend untold numbers of what could have been billable hours writing this post to slog through numbers. Instead, I was intrigued by Officer Wright's discussion of deciding whether to pull over a boat -- noting that unlike officers who decide to pull over a car, there may not be clear cut instances where the car crosses a lane line. While the Fourth Amendment restricts officers from the unreasonable seizure of vehicles, officers are permitted to stop a vehicle if they have reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred -- or "probable cause." Most typically, officers can establish probable cause by observing a traffic violation, like failing to signal, crossing a lane line, or speeding. But what about boats?

A potential basis for stopping a boat is analyzed in depth in the Iowa Supreme Court case of State v. Pettijohn. There, the Court held that an officer's stop of a boat was constitutional because the officer reasonably believed that the operator of the boat was violating Iowa Code 462A.12, which prohibits the reckless, negligent, or careless operation of a vessel, water skis, surfboard, or similar device. The basis for the violation? The defendant was driving a boat while a passenger was dangling her feet in the water near the motor, which the officer knew used an unguarded propeller based on his knowledge of the type of boat that he observed. Section 462A.12 likely operates as a catch all, as officers can likely articulate reasons for stopping boats based on numerous circumstances, including boating in darkness without lights (assuming there aren't laws that already specifically address that), or unsafe speed (particularly with other boats present), or both!  See, e.g., Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Cannon (attorney suspended from practice of law for various prior alcohol/drug related offenses, including a boating while intoxicated offense in which he was stopped for accelerating "rather quickly" in a five mile per hour speed-limit zone at 10:30 p.m.).

Another potential basis for stopping a boat is mentioned, but not analyzed, in State v. Slade, where officers believed that a boat was over capacity, and stopped the boat for that reason. As it turns out, the boat contained 16 people, but only was designed to hold 14 people. Slade is notable because it involves "Party Cove" at the Coralville reservoir. Having grown up close to that location, were I to testify as an expert on the Fourth Amendment as applied to Iowa waters, I would likely conclude that the mere presence of a boat in that section of the reservoir constitutes probable cause to stop a boat on suspicion of boating under the influence. I doubt that the courts would agree with me, but that's just because the judges that make these important decisions haven't spent enough time out on the reservoir on the weekends.

But perhaps things have changed since I left Iowa.  KCRG notes that only three people had been arrested on the reservoir for boating under the influence by late July this year. This does not sound like the booze-soaked body of water of my childhood memories, and if the arrest numbers reflect a general trend towards less drinking and boating, then it's a trend that I welcome.

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