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‘Probable cause’ doesn’t apply to boaters: Safety checks help prevent boating deaths

A Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office marine unit speaks with a group of kayakers near the Big Eddy Recreation Area at Dworshak Resevoir on Saturday afternoon. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)
A Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office marine unit speaks with a group of kayakers near the Big Eddy Recreation Area at Dworshak Resevoir on Saturday afternoon. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)
By Elaine Williams Lewiston Tribune

No matter how straight people steer their boats, they still might be pulled over by law enforcement officers on the water for safety checks.

The checks are a common occurrence in the summer months on popular bodies of water in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington, like the Snake River and Dworshak Reservoir.

An alert reader asked about the checks after she experienced three inspections on a visit to Dworshak Reservoir.

Two occurred before getting into the water and were focused on making sure her kayaks had the annual invasive species stickers Idaho requires.

The third was conducted by Clearwater County Sheriff’s deputies. They were looking for the stickers, plus whistles and life jackets.

While the boats passed inspection and no tickets were issued, the officers still asked for the kayaker’s name, home town and telephone number.

Safety checks are a key way that law enforcement officers prevent boating fatalities, said Clearwater County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Gladhart and Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers.

“It’s to make sure people have the right things to have a successful boating day,” Myers said.

Clearwater County officers conduct 1,800 to 2,100 safety checks a year patrolling the 55-mile long Dworshak Reservoir and the Clearwater River, said Gladhart, marine supervisor for the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office.

Myers’ officers conduct anywhere from five to 10 safety checks each summer weekend on a section of the Snake River that extends from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers to Lyons Ferry.

The sections of the river Whitman County covers outside its jurisdiction are ones his office handles through contracts with agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers.

The officers’ biggest priority is compliance with life jacket rules.

People need to have a life jacket of the right size for every person on a vessel even if it’s a paddleboard, canoe or kayak, Gladhart said.

With vessels that are 19 feet long and shorter, children 12 years old and younger in Washington and 14 years old and younger in Idaho need to be wearing life jackets.

Clearwater County issues citations for life jacket violations partially because free loaner life jackets are available at every boat launch on Dworshak Reservoir, Gladhart said.

Similarly Whitman County officers don’t allow boaters to continue their day without enough life jackets, Myers said.

His officers might loan life jackets or ask boaters to return to shore and get the right number of life jackets, Myers said.

Officers educate boaters about other rules too. For example, fire extinguishers need to be carried on motorized boats. Washington requires anyone driving most motor boats to earn a boater education card by taking a safety course.

“If we push those safety inspections, we hope we’re cutting down on infraction enforcement,” Myers said.

Because the inspections are for safety, not to catch people doing something wrong, probable cause isn’t required, Myers said.

That’s different from when someone is driving a vehicle on a road. Normally officers can’t pull over drivers unless they are observed speeding or breaking another rule such as not signaling before a turn.

Officers generally ask people for their names, telephone numbers and home towns even if they pass the checks.

While technically people could decline to provide their names, the agencies his office has contracts with like to see them, Myers said.

That information can be helpful to families and law enforcement, especially after sunset on a Sunday night when a boating party is missing, Myers said.

“Not a week goes by that we don’t deal with a stranded boater.”

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