JUNE 24, 2021:
A primary mission of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC)
Law Enforcement Division has been to promote a safe and responsible boating environment through both proactive law enforcement and quality instruction. In a state that has doubled in population since 1980 to 10.6 million citizens with 375,000 vessels currently registered, creating a setting where all boaters can safely enjoy the outdoors has never been more important. As the state agency tasked with all boating law enforcement, the detection and arrest of impaired boat operators to meet this public safety objective is paramount.
With the recent pandemic conditions, boating has become an even more popular outdoor activity with North Carolina’s boat registrations increasing 7% over the past year. This welcome, but challenging, rise in boating participation has presented new obstacles to boating while intoxicated (BWI) enforcement. The same number of officers must patrol and address a higher volume of violations. At the same time, the public health crisis must be balanced against the public’s safety on the water.
This increase in boating activity was evident in the number of impaired operators arrested over the 2020 Operation Dry Water weekend. While 29 BWIs were processed in 2019, the number more than doubled in 2020 to 59. What made the operation even more difficult was the directive to officers to limit public contact with boaters to those engaged in more serious violations and focus on egregious acts, such as BWI.
From the outset of boat incident data collection, alcohol use and impairment continues to be a leading known contributing factor in recreational boating fatalities.1
In addition to alcohol, drug-impaired operation is more prevalent in boating incidents and fatalities which complicates this problem even more. The NCWRC took deliberate steps to make boating while impaired a priority in our enforcement activities on the water, as well as being the best trained in detecting impaired operators.
Retired NCWRC Captain Todd Radabaugh provided the initiative and leadership to facilitate training to each officer in both the Standing and Seated Battery of Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Training. A team of SFST instructors conducts this training at the NCWRC Basic School to new recruits. The NCWRC currently has a team of seven SFST instructors who continue to certify all new officers in both Standing and Seated SFSTs and provide in-service refresher training every other year to all officers.
Within the biennial refresher trainings, these instructors review the Standing and Seated Battery of SFSTs, felony BWI investigations, blood draw procedures and conduct live alcohol workshops. With the use of live alcohol workshops, or “Wet-Labs”, many judicial officials participate to enhance their understanding of the SFSTs, ultimately leading to a more aggressive approach in prosecuting BWI’s. With a variety of topics covered, officers are able to maintain knowledge and competency in this skill set. As a result, NCWRC officers have been recognized as subject matter experts, with many agencies requesting the agency’s assistance in detecting impaired operators on and off the water. In addition to teaching officers from the NCWRC, this team of SFST instructors frequently teaches the Seated Battery of SFST’s to the North Carolina Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s Office, local Police Departments, and DWI Task Forces across the state.
Another component in NCWRC’s ability to increase efficacy of detecting impaired boat operators is their team of Drug Recognition Experts (DREs). Currently eight DREs are trained to detect impairment due to alcohol and drugs through an extensive 12-step evaluation process. These DREs perform evaluations in impairment cases where the level of alcohol is below .08 BAC or not present at all. These skills allow DREs to recognize the level of impairment and testify to what drug categories, or combination of drug categories caused it. The agency’s DREs continue to assist many agencies in high-profile impairment cases with their testimony being the primary factor in conviction. In addition to the eight DRE’s, nearly all NCWRC officers are trained in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE). This allows officers to observe, identify and articulate signs of impairment related to drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.#ODWBlog#ODWMediaRelease
When it comes to enforcement efforts to address BWI, the NCWRC routinely works with the NC Highway Patrol, alcohol law enforcement, many sheriff’s offices, police departments and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). These joint public awareness campaigns are planned on peak activity weekends throughout the summer and include social media blitzes, news releases and on-site media events including all agency representatives, local legislators, and district attorneys. All officers on duty are on the water during these times to provide the highest concentration and most visible presence of law enforcement as possible to enhance public awareness and maximize the effectiveness of the campaign.
North Carolina’s Forensic Tests for Alcohol Branch is another critical partner that provides a mobile breath alcohol testing center on wheels, also known as the “BAT Mobile”. This important and highly visible tool allows officers to transport suspected impaired operators to a boating access area to immediately perform a breath test on-site. In many instances, the NCWRC arranges for an on-duty magistrate to be present for the establishment of probable cause by a judicial official without ever leaving the boating access area. This greatly reduces the time officers remain off the water dealing with arrested subjects and allows time sensitive evidence to be gathered quickly.
NCWRC has adapted to the current environment in BWI detection with the use of their Special Operations Unit to support uniformed officers in marked patrol boats. Their ability to get closer to ongoing violations and relay observations back to officers is essential in stopping impaired operators that may go undetected. Collaborating with these partners and using a variety of enforcement techniques enables NCWRC to keep the boating public safe by removing impaired operators from North Carolina waters.
Ultimately the success in this mission has been a result of teamwork, partnerships, and the tireless efforts on behalf of all NCWRC officers to vigorously and proactively enforce the boating while impaired laws in North Carolina. This will remain a priority so North Carolina’s boating public can enjoy their time on the water and go home safe at the end of the day.
12019 U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics.