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A night on the water with the DNR Police

Kristi Tousignant//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//August 30, 2012

A night on the water with the DNR Police

By Kristi Tousignant

//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

//August 30, 2012

Maryland boaters often pair a day on the waves with a cold beer, whether they’re charging through the water on a speedboat or quietly floating with a fishing line below the surface.

DNR Police Officer Steven Hunter talks to a couple that says they are taking their sick dog ashore. He had stopped the boat for not having any lights. Click here for more photos.

Many people don’t realize, however, that in Maryland, drunk boating, or OWI (operating while intoxicated) or OUI (operating under the influence), carries the same penalties as driving a car under the influence and is just as dangerous.

Few citations are issued for drunk boating every year, though. Only 194 were given last year, according to Department of Natural Resources Police records, and Maryland DUI attorneys say they only take on a few drunk boating cases a year.

Police records, however, show that the state’s biggest hotspot for drunk boating is the rivers and bay area in Anne Arundel County, where Del. Don Dwyer admitted to drinking before driving a boat just over a week ago. Dwyer, an Anne Arundel Republican, said he had an alcohol content level of .2, more than double the legal limit.

Dwyer’s boat collided with another vessel on the Magothy River, and he and five others were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries after the crash, according to police.

DNR Police Officer Steven Hunter was working the evening Aug. 22 and was the first DNR officer at the scene of Dwyer’s crash, though he arrived after everyone in the boats had been taken to shore.

The Daily Record joined Hunter and DNR Cpl. Robert Martin last weekend as they patrolled the South River in Anne Arundel County.

7 p.m.

It’s dusk on the water at Liberty Marina in Edgewater. Martin turns on the engine of the police department’s long, gray boat. Martin and Hunter have opted for a larger vessel with a covered cabin instead of the smaller, shelter-less one to escape the rain that has been falling intermittently all day.

Martin and Hunter just started their shift, during which they will watch for boating, fishing or hunting violations until 2 a.m. Martin sits on the driver’s side and slowly backs the boat out of its slot at the dock.

The boat passes ritzy yachts and smaller motorboats before sliding under a bridge with a sign reading “speed zone 6 all times.”

Speeding is one of the ways DNR police locate drunk boaters. When officers pull boaters over for speeding, they then come aboard and look for signs the driver is drunk. That is, if the officers can catch them.

“If we see someone in a speed zone speeding and they speed away, particularly if we are in the whaler [boat], we are never going to catch them,” Martin says.

7:10 p.m.

DNR Police Officer Steven Hunter gets ready to board his boat in preparation for a night of patrolling the South River. Click here for more photos. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Martin and Hunter have issued one drunk boating citation each this season. Martin has given out as many as six during a summer and none other years.

Drunk boating citations, in general, have been slowly going down over the past five years. Numbers in 2011 were down 20 percent from the 242 citations issued in 2007.

Martin sits on the driver’s side, one arm on the wheel, leaning against the side of the boat with his arm over his chair. The air is balmy and the waves are choppy after a day of wind and rain. During their shifts, Martin and Hunter are free to go where they want to patrol.

They head to one of the South River’s popular hangouts, Mike’s Crab House, where Martin and Hunter decide to check for boaters leaving after a few happy-hour cocktails.

“Coming up for a minute,” Martin calls.

The boat leans up and rumbles through the river, leaving a wake behind it. Martin, in his DNR black-rimmed hat and clear-framed sports glasses, slows the boat as it nears the restaurant. Two boats sit outside.

“Those boats are very probably just regulars,” Martin says.

Penalties for drunk boating are the same as for driving a car while drunk in Maryland. And the legal blood alcohol content limit is .08 for both. First-time offenders face up to a year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine. Second-time offenders face up to two years in prison and up to a $2,000 fine.

The main difference is that boaters in Maryland are not required to have a boating license. They simply need to pass a boating safety course to receive a Maryland Boater Education Card. That means if a driver gets pulled over for drunk boating, the person does not have a license that can be taken away. Drunk boating offenses will not go on your driving record either, police said.

7:31 p.m.

A sliver of neon orange sky slices through the hovering clouds, remnants of the afternoon rain. Few boats are on the water.

“Weather today was probably a factor for a lot of people,” Martin says, looking out onto the water from his three-sided glass cabin.

On peak weekends, like July 4th, Hunter says between boaters speeding and people fishing, police could pull over between 30 to 40 boats.

Drinking in boats is legal since there are no open-container laws for boats, Hunter says.

“It’s like sitting in a car in a driveway,” Hunter said. “You can get as drunk as you want.”

But boaters can’t drive with a blood alcohol content above .08. That means, technically, boaters can legally be drinking while they are driving their boats — as long as they are not above the legal limit, Hunter says.

The make-up of drinkers on the water changes throughout the day, Hunter says. In the morning. it’s usually recreational fishers looking for a pre-dawn catch. Hunter says he sometimes sees the most drinking activity during daylight on a weekday when he runs into people fishing.

“Sometimes you pop the cooler and half the keg is gone in the morning, because that is what they are doing for the day,” he says.

With anglers and crabbers, DNR police can simply come aboard a boat for no reason at all. Since the Department of Natural Resources regulates all fishing and hunting in the state, it can come aboard any fishing vessel — commercial and recreational — to make sure anglers are complying with state guidelines for the size and number of fish they can catch.

As it gets later, usually on weekends, police see boaters leaving restaurants after dinner and a few drinks. This crowd, Hunter says, is rowdier, and police often get trespassing calls late at night for intoxicated revelers partying where they shouldn’t be.

As dusk sets in, the sky turns as murky as the bay water below. The two engines rattle as the boat hits rough water.

The rivers and Chesapeake Bay area in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties have the highest number of drunk boating citations in the state, with 147 citations issued in the past five years.

This area sees more drunk boating citations than even the lower Eastern Shore with all of its Ocean City vacationers. Only 65 drunk boating citations were been issued there in the past five years, less than half the number in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

Allegany and Garrett counties have the second-highest drunk boating arrests, though, many of which come from Deep Creek Lake, police said. There have been 116 citations issued in that area in the past five years.

8 p.m.

Hunter has been a DNR officer for a year. He quit his job selling insurance to break free of the eight-hour day behind the desk to work outside.

Hunter stands outside the covered cabin, grabbing the top with both arms. He looks from side to side as Martin speeds the boat over the waves.

He issued his first drunk boating citation this summer on the Magothy River when two boats hit each other in what Hunter called a “bumper bash.” No one was steering the boat when one hit the other, Hunter says. When Hunter came on board, he noticed the man who was supposed to be the driving slurring his words.

“He had a red plastic cup and he tells me, ‘Oh, it’s just water,’” Hunter says, laughing. “But I tell him I can see inside the cup and I can see that it’s brown.”

The boat slows as it passes a Zodiac, a small inflatable boat with a motor. There is a couple inside with their dog. The boat does not have any lights on.

All boats with motors are required to have navigation lights between sunset and sunrise, the police say. Row boats have to have a flashlight. If not, police can pull them over.

“You can be the best boater in the world, but if you have no lights on, people will run into you,” Martin says.

In general, it is easier for a DNR police officer to pull over a boater than it is for police on land to pull over a drunk driver in a car.

Police on land have to have reasonable suspicion to pull someone over. DNR police can pull boaters over for not complying with the many requirements boaters must meet with their boats, such as proper registration and navigation lighting. The boat’s numbers and validation decals also have to be properly displayed.

“It seems like a small detail, but it’s reason enough to stop them,” Hunter says.

When they come across people like the couple with the dog, Hunter and Martin look for signs the driver is drunk. If they suspect the driver is drunk, they ask to come aboard the boat to check its safety equipment, looking for signs of intoxication the whole time.

On the Zodiac, there are no indicators of inebriation. The couple tells Hunter their dog is sick and they are taking it ashore. Martin warns them about the lights and lets them continue since it is just after dusk and only toeing the line of a violation.

8:24 p.m.

Martin is going on his 11th year with the DNR police. He was an officer with the Anne Arundel County Police Department for 25 years before that. He watches his collection of screens — GPS, radar, speedometer — illuminated in the red light of the cabin switched on now that the sun’s gone down.

“I wanted to do something different,” Martin says. “That was part of it. The other part about it was the boating part.”

The radio crackles. One of the few boats all night has appeared in the mist. The driver wants to pass.


“Roger on the port side,” Martin responds.

“OK if we move over?”

“Roger that,” Martin answers, and the other boat eases past.

8:45 p.m.

Everything goes gray on the edges except the red lights on Martin’s console. The multimillion-dollar houses on the hills above the water’s edge turn into pinpoints of light.

The boat passes another vessel full of people. Martin and Hunter think the couple with the dog came from that boat.

“With weather like today, people are probably just sitting in boats,” Martin says.

At night, Martin says, it’s not as easy to pull people over, since you can’t see their stickers or decals in the dark.

“You are more limited in what you can stop them for,” Martin says.

9:30 p.m.

The officers have made their way back to Mike’s Crab House. The same boats sit outside the restaurant.

They swing back to stop outside another restaurant called Coconut Joe’s. The square building is lit up with hanging lights. People crowd inside, but not on the water.

The police boat hovers by the other parked boats for a few minutes.

“They probably see us all here and are saying they are going to take a water taxi home,” Hunter says.

10 p.m.

Martin slides the boat back between the posts of the dock at Liberty Marina. The rainy weather earlier in the day and lack of boats on the water has convinced them they won’t find much action on the river tonight.

Martin is off to patrol one of the nearby state parks. DNR police can choose where they go during their shifts — land or water. Hunter is headed back to his home district around the Magothy River.

As the officers climb out of the boat and as their black boots hit the dock, as if on cue, it begins to rain.


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