Alcohol abuse more common on waterways
Posted: Monday, June 22, 2009 9:03 pm
NASHVILLE (AP) — Emily Harding had graduated from Hendersonville High School less than a week before she died in a drinking-related boating accident on Old Hickory Lake four years ago.
Authorities told her family she was cruising with a group of eight friends when she fell overboard and was struck by the boat. During the investigation, police discovered other teens on board were drinking that day.
“You never get over the sense of loss,” said Harding’s aunt, Pam McKellar. “It still takes my breath away, even four years later. I’ll be doing something and she’ll flash before my eyes … all of a sudden, you forget to breathe.”
The Tennessean newspaper reports that alcohol abuse is a growing problem on Tennessee’s rivers and lakes.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says arrests for boating under the influence continue to climb.
In 2007, there were 126 people arrested in Tennessee for the offense. A year later, that climbed to 152. This year, 66 people have been arrested so far.
The increase in arrests can be linked to more people drinking on the state’s waterways and to additional training for officers, said Glenn Moates, a boating investigator and instructor with the agency.
Wildlife agents say Tennessee’s boating laws don’t have enough bite, despite a stronger focus on enforcement.
A first-time DUI conviction means an automatic 48-hour jail stay for the offender. But for a BUI conviction, the minimum sentence is left to the judge’s discretion.
Also, repeated DUI convictions can lead to a felony charge, but with a BUI, the charge always results in a misdemeanor.
That doesn’t make sense to Cape Taylor, supervisor of wildlife agency officers in northern Middle Tennessee.
“It is just as dangerous, if not more, to drive a boat while intoxicated than it is to drive a car,” Taylor said. “At least a car has lanes. With a boat, a person can go anywhere and any way on the water.”
In cases where BUI leads to a fatality, it is up to the district attorney to determine charges, which can range from reckless endangerment to manslaughter and even second-degree murder, according to the Davidson County District Attorney’s of-fice.
A boater cannot be charged with vehicular homicide by intoxication, like someone in a DUI case would be, because the law states that a vehicular homicide has to occur on a public roadway, said Davidson County Assistant District Attorney Antoinette Welsh.
Of the 53 boating under the influence cases in Davidson County courts since January 2007, 25 have resulted in convictions. Ten resulted in guilty pleas to lesser charges, and two were dismissed. The others are still pending.
In the weeks after the accident that claimed Harding’s life, several of the teens were cited for underage drinking. A 19-year-old, whose father owned the boat, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges — assault, reckless endangerment and boating under the influence. Authorities said he allowed a passenger who had never before driven a boat to take the wheel. He spent 30 days in jail, had his boating privileges revoked for one year and was given nearly three years of probation. McKellar thinks the sentence was appropriate.
“If he had been convicted of the original charges, he would have had a felony on his record,” she said. “We didn’t want to ruin his life. If Emily had been an innocent bystander, I would have had some resentment, but it was just a tragedy and you can’t really say it was one person’s fault.”
Published in The Messenger 6.22.09