When Department of Natural Resources Police Cpl. Robert Martin or Officer Steven Hunter pulls someone over, he pays attention to whether he can smell alcohol, if the boater’s speech is slurred and if the boater has color in his face. The officers also keep an eye out for unusual behavior.
If they see any of these signs, they will then ask the boater to perform a first stage of sobriety tests aboard the boat. These tests include asking him to recite the alphabet without singing, counting backward, clapping palms together or touching each of his fingers with his thumb.
The most surefire telltale, however, are the eyes, Hunter said. In the horizontal gaze Nystagmus test, officers have a boater follow the tip of a pen with his eyes. If the driver’s eyes shake when they move, that is a sign he is drunk. This is the best indicator, Hunter said, because people can’t control this reaction.
Some officers have a PBT, or preliminary breath tester, on board. Officers can administer this breathalyzer on the boat, but its results are not admissible in court. It is more of a tool, Hunter said.
If the officer has reason to believe the boater is drunk after these tests, the officer will take the boater to land. The police have to either tow the boat, have someone else drive it to a marina or anchor it. The officers will then have the boater perform another set of sobriety tests on land — standing on one leg or walking heel to toe, then turning. If the person fails those tests, the DNR police arrest the person and take him to the nearest police station.
At the police station, the boater can take a chemical test — blood test or breathalyzer. These tests have to be administered by a state-licensed technician. Results from these tests are admissible in court.
Boaters have the right to refuse the breathalyzer test, but the penalties for not complying can result in a ban from driving a boat for up to a year. When an apparently drunk car driver refuses the test, his driver’s license could be revoked for up to one year.
One of the problems, Hunter said, is that by the time they do the initial sobriety tests, tow the boat to shore, perform more tests, drive to the station, then wait for the technician, boaters have sometimes sobered up over the several-hour process.
“If they end up being borderline, it’s good we got them off the water,” Hunter said.