Boating Under the Influence

Boating Under the Influence

Key Takeaway

What happens if convicted of boating under the influence in MN? In Minnesota, being convicted of Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) carries serious legal consequences, similar to those for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). The penalties vary depending on the degree of the offense, which is influenced by factors such as prior offenses, blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and the presence of minors.


According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2022, 636 people died and 2,222 were injured in boating accidents. Boating accidents also caused more than $63 million in damages in the United States in the same year. Motorboats continue to be the primary vessel leading to boating accidents, with alcohol consumption as a main contributor in boating-related fatalities. 

It is illegal to operate a motorboat or other motor-propelled watercraft while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In Minnesota, the same laws that apply to automotives apply to watercrafts. The U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement patrol waterways to monitor for violations, and you may be arrested if you are caught violating these laws. 

If you have been charged with boating under the influence (BWI), all is not lost. Our knowledgeable Sterle Law BWI/DWI attorney can help minimize penalties, negotiate alternative punishments, and guide you through the complex BWI laws in Minnesota to ensure your best future possible.

Knowing the Boating Laws

Since Minnesotans own more boats per capita than any other state in the country, it is important for boaters to be armed with the knowledge of state boating laws before operating any motorized watercraft. According to Minnesota Statute 169A.20, it is illegal to operate or be in physical control of a motor vehicle – including a motorboat – while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. If you are found to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or higher or are impaired by drugs or alcohol, you can be charged with “boating while intoxicated”, which is also referred to as “boating under the influence”. 

Minnesota law does not prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages on board, nor does it forbid the presence of open containers. The law applies to motorboats “in operation” at the time of the offense; therefore, if a motorboat is anchored, beached, or securely fastened to a mooring (or even being rowed or propelled by other means), the law does not apply. 

In Minnesota, the Coast Guard and local law enforcement do not need probable cause, rather only reasonable suspicion, to board and search your watercraft. While it’s not illegal to have open alcohol containers, their presence may make police more likely to board your boat to investigate. Patrols often increase over popular boating holidays like the Fourth of July and Memorial and Labor days. 

BWI Degrees and Conviction Penalties

If you have been charged with boating while intoxicated (BWI), there are four degrees of charges in Minnesota:

First-Degree: The most severe BWI conviction, an offender will receive a first-degree charge if they have three or more prior BWI or driving while intoxicated (DWI) convictions that occurred in the past 10 years, have a prior first-degree BWI/DWI conviction, or have a prior felony conviction for vehicular homicide. A first-degree BWI is a felony that carries up to a $14,000 fine and three to seven years in prison. 

Second-Degree: If you had two or more prior BWI/DWI convictions in the past 10 years or refused to submit to chemical testing according to Minnesota’s implied consent laws, you will be charged with second-degree BWI. Second-degree BWIs are gross misdemeanors that are punishable by 90 days to one year in jail and up to $3,000 in fines.

Third-Degree: Third-degree BWI charges are the result of one prior BWI/DWI in the past 10 years or a refusal to submit to chemical testing. As a gross misdemeanor, a third-degree BWI will result in 48 hours to one year in prison or 80 hours of community service and up to $3,000 in fines. 

Fourth-Degree: If this is your first BWI offense, you will receive a fourth-degree charge. Boaters will experience up to a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail. 

If other aggravating factors are present, your charges and penalties may increase. Potential aggravating factors include: a high BAC of .16% or higher, a minor is aboard the vessel, an accident caused property damage, or serious injury or death occurred. 

When apprehended by law enforcement about a potential BWI, a breathalyzer test will be administered to determine a person’s level of impairment. Field sobriety tests and preliminary breath tests (PBT) are not required by law. However, those who refuse chemical testing may be subject to separate and more severe criminal charges. 

In addition to fines and jail time, all boaters convicted of a BWI will lose their boating privileges for at least 90 days, which must occur during the boating season between May 1 and October 31 and can span two consecutive years. You may also lose your driver’s license, and a BWI conviction will also appear on your driving record. 

Helping You Navigate the BWI Process

The experienced counsel at Sterle Law can guide you through the legal process to avoid a BWI conviction, as well as how to minimize suspension periods and negotiate alternative punishments. With our extensive knowledge of navigating Minnesota’s BWI and DWI laws, our BWI/DWI lawyers can use the state’s laws to your advantage. To schedule a free consultation for your Minnesota BWI case, call 218-326-9646 to speak to one of our criminal defense attorneys. 

Attorney Chad B. Sterle has over 24 years of legal expertise in dealing with criminal defense, family law, DUI/DWI and many other legal practices. We understand that you may be going through a stressful and overwhelming time, which is why we take the care of the legal logistics and focus on delivering expert legal support. Sterle Law Office is here for you whether you have general legal questions, or you’re ready to hire an attorney.