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Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)



Introduction to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises in Florida

Boating Under the Influence (BUI) is a serious offense in Florida, akin to Driving Under the Influence (DUI). To determine impairment, law enforcement officers use a series of field sobriety exercises specifically designed for the boating environment. This guide provides an overview of these exercises and their legal implications.

Understanding BUI Investigations

Unlike DUI investigations, BUI investigations are conducted on water, making traditional field sobriety tests impractical. Instead, officers rely on seated field sobriety exercises to assess a boater’s impairment. These tests are crucial for establishing probable cause for a BUI arrest.

Law enforcement officers treat boating under the influence, or BUI, as a very serious crime in Florida. To be sure, BUI is equally as dangerous as driving a motor vehicle under the influence. Any boater who drinks and operates a vessel in Florida waters places himself or herself, along with the passengers in the boat and everyone else on the water, in grave danger of sustaining a severe injury or death in a boating accident. Consequently, law enforcement officers vigilantly search for boaters who could be operating their vessels under the influence on Florida waterways.

Law enforcement officers must establish probable cause for BUI before the officer has the authority to arrest the boat operator. The standard of probable cause is not high. Essentially, the officer has probable cause to arrest a boater for BUI when the officer possesses sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to conclude that the subject under investigation probably committed a crime. This standard is far below the familiar standard to convict a person of a crime in the United States beyond a reasonable doubt.

Officers on the water may stop a vessel to check for the presence of safety gear, sounding devices, fire extinguisher, proof of registration, flotation devices, and other safety equipment. However, the officer cannot prolong the encounter just to investigate something that the officer does not observe before he or she completes a safety check. Law enforcement officers only need reasonable suspicion to open an investigation into a boater the officer thinks could be under the influence.

What is reasonable suspicion in a BUI investigation? Reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch; it is objective evidence suggesting that a person has committed, is committing, or will commit a crime.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard of proof than probable cause. Reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch. Instead, the investigating officer has reasonable suspicion when there is objective evidence to suggest that the person under investigation has committed, is in the process of committing, or will commit a crime in the near future. The standard is certainly less than precise.

The officer must establish a reasonable suspicion that the boater was under the influence before beginning field sobriety tests. Law enforcement officers in Florida can reasonable suspicion by noting the manner in which the driver operates the boat, how the driver reacts when the officer asks non-investigatory questions such as inquiring about safety equipment, asking the boater to retrieve the fire extinguisher, asking for proof of registration and then asking for identification, asking to retrieve flotation devices, and asking to pull the boat over to a safe location like a dock or marina.

The officer will pay very close attention to how the boater reacts emotionally to the encounter, how the boater moves, whether the boater has an accurate memory of where items are stowed, and the manner of the boater’s speech. The officer will also look around, under the authority conferred upon the officer by the plain view doctrine, to see if any cans of alcohol are visible, the presence of trash or other dangerous items, and look for other signs of intoxication as well in the same manner in which an officer might do roadside at a car stop. The officer will be on the watch for the smell of alcohol present on the boater, bloodshot and watery eyes, slurred speech, and difficulty with mental processes.

After making the initial observations of the boater, the officer can ask the operator to perform field sobriety tests or field sobriety exercises. Obviously, the traditional field sobriety exercises that the officers use during a car stop when the officer suspects the driver of being under the influence is of little utility to the officer. The officer cannot ask a boater to perform a nine-step walk and turn test, one-legged stand test, or the standing finger to the nose test when the vessel is bobbing up and down in the wakes of other boats or in the waves. The officer could ask the operator to perform field sobriety exercises adapted for using in BUI investigations.

If the officer suspects that the operator is or has been boating under the influence, then the officer can ask the boater to step board the patrol boat for further examination. The officer can ask the boater to be seated in the patrol boat to perform seated field sobriety exercises designed for BUI investigations. Seated field sobriety examinations include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the finger to nose test, the palm test, and hand coordination test. Scientific researchers designed the hand coordination test to mimic the familiar nine-step walk and turn exercise. Each test is known as a divided attention test, meaning that the officer asks the suspect to perform a relatively simple task physically while counting. Thus, the brain is divided between the physical and mental exams, which is hard to do when someone is under the influence.

What is probable cause in a BUI investigation? Probable cause is sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to conclude that the subject under investigation probably committed a crime.

The officer can develop probable cause to arrest either before or after the field sobriety exercises are concluded. There is a chance that the operator could pass the field sobriety exercises and win his or her release, although the likelihood is slim.

The officer must consider detaining the suspect for lengthy periods without probable cause. In other words, the officer must be mindful of taking the suspect’s liberty away without probable cause to arrest. For example, if the officer takes the suspect out of his or her vessel and transports him or her, handcuffed, to a location to perform field sobriety exercises, a judge might determine that an arrest was made by the officer without probable cause and violated the suspect’s rights.

The officer must be wary of when he or she asks questions of the suspect. The officer must give the suspect the Miranda warnings before asking any questions of a person in custody, that is under arrest, if the officer asks any questions. There is no need to give the Miranda warnings if the officer does not ask the suspect anything. A judge has the authority to suppress any statements made by the suspect in response to an officer’s questions while under arrest if the officer failed to give the suspect the Miranda warnings.

For more information on how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission handles these investigations, visit our page on FWC BUI Investigations.

Common Seated Field Sobriety Exercises for BUI

Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)

Seated field sobriety exercises are designed to be performed on a boat, where balance and stability are compromised. The most common tests include:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test

The HGN test involves following a moving object with the eyes. Officers look for involuntary jerking of the eyes, which can indicate impairment. This test is a staple in both DUI and BUI investigations.

Palm Pat Test

The palm pat test is unique to BUI investigations and is designed to assess a boater’s coordination and ability to follow instructions. Here’s how it works:

  • Step 1: The boater extends one hand, palm up.
  • Step 2: The other hand is placed palm down on top of the extended hand.
  • Step 3: The top hand pats the bottom hand, then rotates to pat with the back of the hand, increasing speed.
  • Step 4: The boater must count “1, 2” in rhythm with the patting.

Officers look for signs of impairment, such as difficulty maintaining rhythm or confusion in following instructions.

Hand Coordination Test

The hand coordination test is another exercise adapted specifically for BUI investigations. This test mimics the nine-step walk and turn exercise used in DUI investigations but is performed while seated. Here’s the procedure:

  • Step 1: The boater makes a fist with each hand, placing the left fist on the center of their chest and the right fist against the left.
  • Step 2: The boater moves their fists in a step-like fashion, counting “one” to “four.”
  • Step 3: The boater claps their hands three times.
  • Step 4: The boater then reverses the steps, counting “five” to “eight.”
  • Step 5: The boater places their hands on their lap.

This test assesses the boater’s ability to perform divided attention tasks, which can be challenging when impaired by alcohol or drugs.

What is the purpose of the hand coordination test? The hand coordination test assesses a boater’s ability to perform divided attention tasks, which are difficult when impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Finger to Nose Test

In this test, the boater is asked to touch the tip of their nose with their index finger while keeping their eyes closed and head tilted back. Officers look for accuracy and coordination, which can be affected by alcohol or drugs. The procedure is as follows:

  • Step 1: The boater tilts their head back and closes their eyes.
  • Step 2: The officer instructs the boater to touch their nose with their left or right index finger in a specific sequence.
  • Step 3: The boater must accurately touch the tip of their nose with the correct finger.

Officers observe for signs of impairment such as missing the nose, using the wrong hand, or leaving the finger on the nose instead of returning it to the side.

These seated field sobriety exercises are crucial in BUI investigations. However, they are not without their limitations. The environment on a boat can make these tests challenging even for sober individuals. For more information on how these tests are conducted, visit our page on contesting BUI charges.

It’s important to note that these tests are designed to assess divided attention, which is the ability to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. This is a skill that is often impaired by alcohol and drugs. If you find yourself subjected to these tests, knowing your rights and the limitations of these exercises can be crucial. For further details on BUI laws, see our underage boating DUI guide.

Understanding the specifics of these tests can help boaters navigate the complexities of a BUI investigation. If you or a loved one is facing a BUI charge, consulting an experienced attorney can make a significant difference in the outcome of your case. For more information on BUI investigations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, visit our page on FWC BUI Investigations.

Additional Seated Field Sobriety Exercises

Beyond the HGN test, officers may use other exercises to gauge impairment:

Finger to Nose Test

In this test, the boater is asked to touch the tip of their nose with their index finger while keeping their eyes closed and head tilted back. Officers look for accuracy and coordination, which can be affected by alcohol or drugs. The procedure is as follows:

  • Step 1: The boater tilts their head back and closes their eyes.
  • Step 2: The officer instructs the boater to touch their nose with their left or right index finger in a specific sequence.
  • Step 3: The boater must accurately touch the tip of their nose with the correct finger.

Officers observe for signs of impairment such as missing the nose, using the wrong hand, or leaving the finger on the nose instead of returning it to the side.

What is the purpose of the finger to nose test? The finger to nose test assesses a boater’s coordination and ability to follow instructions, which can be impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Palm Pat Test

The palm pat test is designed to assess coordination and the ability to follow instructions. Here’s how it works:

  • Step 1: The boater extends one hand, palm up.
  • Step 2: The other hand is placed palm down on top of the extended hand.
  • Step 3: The top hand pats the bottom hand, then rotates to pat with the back of the hand, increasing speed.
  • Step 4: The boater must count “1, 2” in rhythm with the patting.

Officers look for signs of impairment, such as difficulty maintaining rhythm or confusion in following instructions.

Hand Coordination Test

The hand coordination test mimics the nine-step walk and turn exercise used in DUI investigations but is performed while seated. Here’s the procedure:

  • Step 1: The boater makes a fist with each hand, placing the left fist on the center of their chest and the right fist against the left.
  • Step 2: The boater moves their fists in a step-like fashion, counting “one” to “four.”
  • Step 3: The boater claps their hands three times.
  • Step 4: The boater then reverses the steps, counting “five” to “eight.”
  • Step 5: The boater places their hands on their lap.

This test assesses the boater’s ability to perform divided attention tasks, which can be challenging when impaired. For more details on how these tests are conducted, visit our page on contesting BUI charges.

It’s important to note that these tests are designed to assess divided attention, which is the ability to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. This is a skill that is often impaired by alcohol and drugs. If you find yourself subjected to these tests, knowing your rights and the limitations of these exercises can be crucial. For further details on BUI laws, see our underage boating DUI guide.

Understanding the specifics of these tests can help boaters navigate the complexities of a BUI investigation. If you or a loved one is facing a BUI charge, consulting an experienced attorney can make a significant difference in the outcome of your case. For more information on BUI investigations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, visit our page on FWC BUI Investigations.


Understanding the legal context of BUI field sobriety exercises is crucial for boaters:

Probable Cause and Arrest

Officers must establish probable cause before making a BUI arrest. The results of field sobriety exercises play a significant role in this determination. Failing these tests can lead to arrest and subsequent legal proceedings. Law enforcement officers treat boating under the influence as a very serious crime in Florida, akin to driving under the influence.

What is probable cause in a BUI case? Probable cause is the standard by which officers must possess sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to conclude that the subject probably committed a crime.

Boaters should be aware of their rights and the potential consequences of refusing these tests. Consulting with an experienced BUI defense attorney, like those at Leppard Law, can provide valuable guidance and representation. Officers on the water may stop a vessel to check for safety gear, flotation devices, and other equipment. However, they cannot prolong the encounter just to investigate something unrelated to the safety check.

Reasonable Suspicion and Initial Investigations

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard of proof than probable cause. It is more than a hunch and involves objective evidence suggesting that the person under investigation has committed, is in the process of committing, or will commit a crime in the near future. The officer must establish reasonable suspicion that the boater was under the influence before beginning field sobriety tests.

Officers in Florida can establish reasonable suspicion by noting the manner in which the driver operates the boat, how the driver reacts when the officer asks non-investigatory questions such as inquiring about safety equipment or asking the boater to retrieve items like a fire extinguisher or proof of registration. The officer will pay close attention to the boater’s emotional reactions, movements, memory accuracy, and speech mannerisms.

Field Sobriety Exercises and Probable Cause

After initial observations, the officer can ask the operator to perform field sobriety exercises. Traditional field sobriety exercises, such as the nine-step walk and turn test or one-legged stand test, are impractical on water. Instead, officers use seated field sobriety exercises designed for BUI investigations. These include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the finger to nose test, the palm pat test, and the hand coordination test.

These tests are known as divided attention tests, meaning that the officer asks the suspect to perform a relatively simple physical task while counting. This divides the brain’s attention between the physical and mental exams, which is challenging when someone is under the influence.

What are divided attention tests? Divided attention tests require the suspect to perform a physical task while simultaneously counting, making it difficult for those under the influence to complete successfully.

The officer can develop probable cause to arrest either before or after the field sobriety exercises are concluded. There is a chance that the operator could pass the field sobriety exercises and be released, although this is unlikely. The officer must consider detaining the suspect for lengthy periods without probable cause, as this could violate the suspect’s rights.

If an officer takes the suspect out of their vessel and transports them, handcuffed, to a location to perform field sobriety exercises, a judge might determine that an arrest was made without probable cause, violating the suspect’s rights. The officer must be wary of when they ask questions of the suspect. The officer must give the suspect the Miranda warnings before asking any questions of a person in custody. If the officer fails to give the Miranda warnings, any statements made by the suspect in response to the officer’s questions can be suppressed by a judge.

Understanding these legal nuances can be crucial for boaters facing BUI charges. If you or a loved one is in such a situation, consulting with an experienced attorney can make a significant difference in the outcome of your case. For further details on BUI investigations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, visit our page on FWC BUI Investigations.

Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)

It’s also important to know that officers must establish probable cause before making an arrest, and the results of field sobriety exercises are critical in this determination. For more information on how these tests are conducted and their implications, visit our page on contesting BUI charges.

Remember, having an experienced BUI defense attorney on your side can provide invaluable guidance and representation, ensuring your rights are protected throughout the legal process. To learn more about the legal ramifications of BUI charges, check out our underage boating DUI guide.


Infographic depicting the words Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)

What is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test in a BUI investigation?

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test is a field sobriety exercise used during Boating Under the Influence (BUI) investigations. This test involves following a moving object with the eyes while keeping the head still. Officers look for involuntary jerking of the eyes, which can indicate impairment due to alcohol or drugs.

During a BUI investigation, the HGN test helps officers determine if a boater is impaired by observing involuntary eye movements.

What is the Finger to Nose test in a BUI investigation?

The Finger to Nose test is a seated field sobriety exercise used in BUI investigations. The boater is asked to touch the tip of their nose with their index finger while keeping their eyes closed and head tilted back. This test assesses the boater’s coordination and accuracy, which can be affected by alcohol or drug impairment.

  • Eyes Closed: The boater must keep their eyes closed during the test.
  • Head Tilted Back: The boater’s head should be tilted back.
  • Index Finger: The boater uses their index finger to touch the tip of their nose.

The Finger to Nose test is used to evaluate a boater’s coordination and accuracy, which can indicate impairment.

What are the Palm Pat and Hand Coordination tests in a BUI investigation?

The Palm Pat and Hand Coordination tests are seated field sobriety exercises used in BUI investigations to assess a boater’s motor skills and cognitive function:

  • Palm Pat Test: The boater extends one hand palm up and pats it with the other hand, alternating between the palm and back of the hand while counting.
  • Hand Coordination Test: The boater makes fists with both hands, places them on their chest, and then moves them in a specific pattern while counting.

The Palm Pat and Hand Coordination tests help officers evaluate a boater’s motor skills and cognitive function, which can be impaired by alcohol or drugs.

What should I do if I am asked to perform field sobriety exercises during a BUI stop?

If you are asked to perform field sobriety exercises during a BUI stop, it’s important to know your rights and the potential consequences. You have the right to refuse these tests, but refusal can lead to immediate legal consequences and may be used against you in court. Consulting with an experienced BUI defense attorney can help you navigate the situation and provide guidance on the best course of action.

If asked to perform field sobriety exercises during a BUI stop, you have the right to refuse, but it’s crucial to understand the potential legal consequences.





Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)

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Florida Guide to BUI Field Sobriety Exercises (Tests)

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