Impaired boaters facing stronger penalties come December

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A local boater speaking to a law enforcement officer before heading out on the Intracoatal Waterway.
A local boater speaking to a law enforcement officer before heading out on the Intracoatal Waterway.

A law named after a Concord teen killed by an impaired boater last year over the July 4 weekend will increase the penalty for the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.

N.C. Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 958, also known as “Sheyenne’s Law,” on Monday alongside the teen’s family, according to a notice from the governor’s office. House Bill 958 was named in honor of Sheyenne Marshall, a rising senior at Cox Mill High School who was killed by an impaired boater on Lake Norman.

“This bill cannot bring Sheyenne back to us, but it can help save others by sending a strong message that drunk driving in a boat is just as dangerous as in a car,” McCrory said. “With summer here and millions of people flocking to our state’s lakes and beaches, I want to remind everyone not to drink and drive.”

Sheyenne’s Law will take effect on Dec. 1. According to Assistant District Attorney Doug Carriker, a prosecutor in New Hanover and Pender counties charged with bringing many of the area’s impaired driving cases to the courtroom, the increase in the penalty for impaired boating is sending a clear message.

“When people go out on the waterway they need to have in mind having a designated driver on the water because the legislature is not making anything easier on impaired boaters; they are only making things harder,” Carriker said.

Looking back on the last decade, Carriker said just a handful of impaired boating cases with a serious injury or death were investigated and brought before a judge in New Hanover and Pender counties.

While the district attorney’s office has fewer cases of impaired boating incidents than cases involving vehicles, Carriker said that “sadly, in the years ahead…there will doubtless be times where these crimes are charged.”

“It is something rare but like you see from the story of this family who worked for the passage for Sheyenne’s Law, all it takes is the loss of one life. And it’s an infinite tragedy, one life being lost. It’s worthwhile to have a law like this on the books,” Carriker said.

There are several levels to the law ranging from a Class F felony for a serious injury up to a Class B2 felony for repeat deaths on the water. The first offense of a death by impaired boating is a Class D felony with a minimum punishment of more than three years in prison, Carriker said.

Before the law, most cases involving death by an impaired boater would typically be charged as an involuntary manslaughter case, which is a Class F felony with a minimum punishment of 10 months, Carriker said.

“The jump from a Class F felony to a Class D felony…that’s a pretty significant leap,” Carriker said about the change in law.

Those with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the agency that investigates the state’s impaired boating incidents, agree.

“It’s a good thing,” N.C. Wildlife Officer Murphy Hall said. “It should be just as important as impaired operation on the road. Vessels don’t have the safety features that vehicles do.”

Hall, an officer located in the resources commission’s second district, which includes New Hanover and Pender counties, said the new law is going to add another level to the importance to impaired boating investigations.

Hall said officers out in the field respond to these cases as quickly as possible as not to lose time between the incident and response, because detecting impairment is best done within a couple hours. In North Carolina, a driver or boat operator with a blood-alcohol concentration that meets or exceeds .08 is subject to arrest.

“It’s important that we’re making contact sooner than later on a serious injury or fatality,” Hall said. “We just try to catch impaired boaters before they hurt someone.”

Alcohol use was the leading contributing factor in fatal boat incidents in the nation. Twenty-five people died in 2015 due to boating-related incidents in North Carolina, and nearly half of those fatalities involved alcohol.

“If you’re going to drink and enjoy being on the water, getting you and your family back to the boat ramp and back to your house safe is important. It’s important to have a designated driver both on the water and driving to your house from the ramp,” Hall said.

This July 4 weekend, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and its state, local and federal partners are continuing their “On the Road, On the Water, Don’t Drink and Drive” campaign. That same campaign was announced by local and state officials for the Memorial Day weekend.

Starting Friday, officers will increase safety enforcement on the waterways, conduct sobriety checkpoints and help spread public awareness to deter impaired operation of vehicles and vessels across the state.

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