Harsher penalties for boating under influence take effect Sunday

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SPOKANE — A change in Washington state law taking effect Sunday ups the penalty for boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and includes limits for marijuana intoxication.

The charges will now be gross misdemeanors rather than misdemeanors, and will be punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The legal limit for marijuana use is 5 nanograms per milliliter, which will be measured by a blood sample obtained through a warrant.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the legislation in May.

Spokane County sheriff's Deputy Craig Chamberlin said law enforcement and citizens pushed for the changes, to both clarify the law regarding marijuana use and to make the penalty harsher.

"It gives us more teeth," Chamberlin said.

He said a deputy can place a citizen under arrest with probable cause, such as someone slurring their speech or driving a boat erratically. Sobriety field tests are unreliable on the water because of rocking boats, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a blood test without a warrant may be unconstitutional, but Chamberlin said the Sheriff's Office has obtained warrants when excessive marijuana use is suspected.

The suspect stays in custody until a warrant is obtained, he said.

Results can take up to a month.

In Idaho, the penalty for boating under the influence is still a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Any amount of marijuana is still illegal in Idaho.

Chamberlin said the biggest difference between driving under the influence arrests in cars versus boats is the initial stop. On the water, deputies can perform regular boat safety checks and therefore do not have to have a reason to make a stop. On the road, law enforcement officers must have a reason to stop a motorist.

Another difference is open container restrictions. Boaters can have open containers of alcohol, unlike drivers, but cannot be impaired.