Lawmakers float boating enforcement changes

Law enforcement officers would need "reasonable suspicion" to stop and inspect boats sporting state safety stickers, under a measure that sailed through its final House committee Wednesday.

The Economic Affairs Committee voted 12-3 to approve the proposal (HB 703), which would revise a state law about reckless and careless operations of vessels.

A key feature of the proposal would lessen the ability of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law-enforcement officers, county deputies and municipal police officers to use the pretext of conducting safety inspections to stop and search boats if the vessels display commission safety-inspection decals.

"I just want to give safe boaters the opportunity to be pulled over less," bill sponsor Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said. "Not that they can't be pulled over at all."

The proposal wouldn't prohibit officers from stopping boats when there is reasonable suspicion or probable cause that violations have occurred, such as over-harvesting lobster or fishing out of season.

Workman said he advanced the proposal because boaters from his community complain about being pulled over "almost every time they go out" by officers who say they are conducting safety inspections or say they have seen people not properly in the craft.

The commission's Division of Law Enforcement-approved decal, available after a boat has undergone a safety inspection, would have to be posted within six inches of the vessel registration decal, according to the proposal.

On non-motorized boats, which are not required to be registered, the decal would have to be located just above the waterline on the forward half of the port side.

The commission already provides the decals, which don't have an expiration date.

Workman said he doesn't intend to impose new restrictions on the safety decals, such as requiring the color to be changed annually.

"My fear is that if I mandate a different something every year I have inadvertently created an annual inspection process, which I don't want to do," Workman said.

Workman's proposal also would redefine a law about the noncriminal violation of careless operation of a vessel.

"It will no longer be, if this bill becomes law, ticketable to give a ticket to a boater that you think their kids may be sitting unsafely on the boat, otherwise bow-riding, or if your wife is sunbathing on the front of a boat," Workman said. "You can still be pulled over for it and lectured, but not ticketed."

The commission issued 7,770 citations for a variety of violations in 2014, including 3,146 involving safety equipment and regulations, and 802 for the negligent operation of vessels, according to agency records. A year earlier, 6,909 citations were issued by the state agency, with 3,157 involving safety equipment and regulations and 2,227 for negligent operations.

The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1454) has received unanimous support from the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee and must still get through Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and the Fiscal Policy Committee.


Information taken from The News Service of Florida.