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North Idaho lawmakers seek to restore penalties for unsafe boating

Tue., Feb. 4, 2014, 12:28 p.m.

BOISE – A key part of Idaho’s safe boating law was found unconstitutional last year, so the three state lawmakers representing the state’s northernmost tip are proposing a new version to allow unsafe boaters to again be successfully prosecuted in the state.

“The issues at hand were at Priest Lake and Pend Oreille, which is in our district,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “We’ve had citizens contact us about the inability to hold people accountable for the injuries and damages they’ve caused, under this statute.”

The problem started late in the evening on July 4, 2012, when, after the fireworks show, Todd Frederick Stauber’s motorboat plowed into an anchored cabin cruiser on Priest Lake, seriously injuring several boaters. Stauber was charged with grossly negligent operation of a boat, a misdemeanor. But his attorney, Bryce Powell, argued successfully that the law in question was unconstitutionally vague – because it never stated what precisely constituted grossly negligent operation.

Instead, the law just declared it to unlawful to operate a boat “in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb, or damage the property of any person.”

Bonner County Magistrate Judge Debra Heise noted that the Legislature, when it passed the Idaho Safe Boating Act in 1986, inexplicably used the wording from an old state negligent driving law that had been overturned in 1958 for being unconstitutionally vague. That negligent driving law was then amended, and the new, more-specific version was upheld as constitutional in 1961.

Idaho’s current Safe Boating Law has the “exact same language” as the old invalidated law, Keough said. So she and Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and George Eskridge, R-Dover, have drafted a new version that uses the wording the courts have upheld. Under their bill, SB 1274, grossly negligent boating is defined as operating a boat “carelessly and heedlessly or without due caution and circumspection, and at a speed or in a manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.”

The three lawmakers’ proposal also increases penalties. Negligent operation of a vessel would continue to carry a fine of up to $300 and up to 30 days in jail, but grossly negligent operation would have a higher penalty: Up to $1,000 or six months for a first offense; and up to $2,000 and a year in jail for a second offense within five years.

Keough said since the July 4 collision in 2012, there’s been another incident, in which a boater crashed into a parked sailboat on Lake Pend Oreille, causing extensive damage to the sailboat and injuries to the occupants of the motorboat. “It was lowered to a different charge, because they couldn’t use the ‘grossly negligent’ law,” Keough said.

Heise’s January 2013 ruling was upheld on appeal in October. Second District Judge Jeff Brudie found that the law was so vague that it was impossible for “ordinary people (to) … understand what conduct is prohibited.”

SB 1274 was introduced this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. To become law, it must pass both the Senate and House and receive Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature.

Said Keough, “The concern is we have a statute that is unconstitutionally vague, and unfortunately is still needed to hold people accountable for their actions.”


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