02/10/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Maryland Drunken Sailor Legislation: Bill Would Close 'Drunken Boating' Loophole


There's a storm on the Chesapeake Bay and a sailor is drunk.

The water is too choppy and he has had too many beers to handle his sailboat. One wave, he stumbles. Two waves, he falls. And on the third, his boat capsizes.

Luckily, Maryland has state-funded rescuers to help the man. With the storm still whipping, the Department of Natural Resources has to think quickly to save him and salvage his vessel. A rescue mission, a helicopter flight to the hospital and, hours later, a life is saved.

But such operations are not without a price tag. The man's negligence proves difficult for the DNR to prosecute when, technically, it's not illegal to be operating a nonmotorized sailboat under the influence of alcohol, said state Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County.

This scenario and similar ones occurred several times in 2012, said Brochin. That's why he's pushing hard for Senate Bill 74, which was submitted by the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee at the request of the DNR.

The measure would close a loophole created in 2010, when the General Assembly inadvertently exempted nonmotorized sailboats from the law against drunken boating.

Under the bill, someone convicted of operating a sailboat while impaired by alcohol or drugs could face a fine of up to $500 and two months in prison for a first offense. Someone under the influence of alcohol could face a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in prison for a first offense.

Someone with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more is considered to be under the influence of alcohol in Maryland.

The Maryland Senate voted 38-7 Friday in favor of SB 74 -- but not without a few arghs.

"I really don't believe this bill is necessary," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester. "I'm sure the Mothers Against Drunken Sailors are wholeheartedly in favor of this bill, and it would be bad to vote against Mothers Against Drunken Sailors."

Colburn quizzed Brochin on the details of the bill during its three readings in the Senate.

He asked for a definition of sailing. He questioned how much drunken sailors have actually caused problems for the DNR. He said the DNR's resources could be better used. He also argued it was hard to tell, out on the water, how much a sailor has had to drink.

"Obviously, they wouldn't ask a sailor to walk the line or walk the plank," Colburn said.

But the question he asked most was: Who would be charged with operating the sailboat?

Brochin and a number of other senators replied that it would be person who was at the tiller.

That answer wasn't enough for Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Crofton, who, like Colburn, voted against the bill.

The measure "is too ambiguous," Reilly claimed.

While some viewed the bill as a no-brainer, those operating nonmotorized sailboats under the influence are also exempt from prosecution in California. The reasoning behind that law isn't clear.

Del. Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis, who will get to vote on the bill in the House of Delegates, has some experience operating vehicles -- he flies commercial airliners. He said it's "not rocket science" to figure out who is driving a sailboat and that it's obvious that people who are drunk should not be doing so.

"In some ways, driving a sailboat requires a lot more thought than some of these other vessels," McMillan said.

McMillan said he didn't understand why, if the bill's language was that hard to understand, no one put in an amendment to fix it.

"It's sometimes difficult, but not impossible, to put common-sense language that we can all understand into the law," McMillan said. "If it's ambiguous, I'll try to fix it." ___



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