Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ohio's new "Boater Freedom Act" has some pretty big loopholes

Perhaps as concerned about votes as much as he is about boaters' rights, Gov. John Kasich has christened a new law designed to prevent harassment on the high seas.

Or at least Lake Erie, the Ohio River and all the waters between these two popular recreational boating waterways.

As is his custom while attending the annual Fish Ohio Day, Kasich on Wednesday addressed an issue related to boating or fishing. In this case Kasich signed into law House Bill 29, more popularly called the “Boater Freedom Act.”

Now while being stopped repeatedly by waterways law enforcement officers is a royal pain in the neck, calling the measure the “Boater Freedom Act” is a bit of a stretch.

True, the past has seen a watery trail of overly eager officers hailing boats over so the long arm of the law can do spot-checks.

The goal of the officers was to see if the vessel had enough life jackets for everyone on board, that a functional fire extinguisher was present along with the required audio and visual alert apparatuses.

Some recreational boaters using Lake Erie have complained they've been stopped three or more times in the same day by different waterways authorities, all demanding a safety check.

And some licensed Lake Erie charter captains have likewise said they've been keel-hauled into random safety inspections while out trying to lead their clients into walleye or yellow perch.

Thus Kasich put his pen to the document that at least limits local and state law enforcement agencies (read the Ohio Division of Watercraft, county- and municipally run harbor and marine patrols) from conducting boat-safety inspections just for the sake of conducting a boat-safety inspections.

Instead, a waterways law enforcement authority better have a pretty good reason to do so, the new law says.

Of course those reasons have large enough loopholes that even the Titanic could sail easily enough through them.

If a watercraft or other waterways patrol officer believes he or she sees an open container of “joy on the water” so to speak, or believes another local or state waterways law is being broken, the operator requests an inspection (yeah, like that's going to happen), or the hail is part of an organized check point, then, yes, a safety inspection is allowed.

Maybe the best thing the new law does is protect charter skippers from being forced to stop in their pursuit of fish for paying customers.

If a charter boat displays the required Coast Guard licensing certificate then it cannot be stopped just in order put up with an almost certainly useless safety check.

After all, these vessels and their owner/operators all undergo a whole lot of serious federal scrutiny. So much so that the threat of violating a federal requirement could very well cost the charter skipper his – or her – license to operate.

To think such a vessel would have an out-of-date fire extinguisher or not enough approved life jackets is more than logic can accept.

However, before any boater thinks that smooth sailing is now assured the new law comes with an important caveat. That being, the federal government has its own set of rules.

Consequently, Ohio's new law does not apply to the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Boarder Patrol or any other federal organ that has law enforcement authority.

So while the bottom line is that some boaters will assuredly avoid being stopped for a boat safety check, there is still all the power and might of the federal government to deal with as well.

Oh, and don't forget, there's nothing in the law either to keep an Ohio Division of Wildlife officer from stopping a vessel in order to check for fishing licenses.

And if that officer “just happens” to find a waterways safety violation while checking everyone's fishing license, well then, that's just a bonus for doing a good job.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

1 comment:

  1. Vermilion Police apparently didn't get the memo. Last time out, they were conducting one of their famous harassment campaigns on the river. Sgt. Nazi and his side kick hailed over the boat in front of me... and had another stopped at the same time. The "Boaters Freedom" bill would have only had teeth if it had done the right thing and stripped local law enforcement of any and all authority to interact with a registered watercraft without a warrant. There are plenty of authorities with proper training out there to do "safety checks" and stop boaters operating in an unsafe manner. Between the Vermilion P.D.'s harassment and the complete imbeciles running the Port Authority launching ramp there, I'll limit by consumer spending to Central Basin Bait and spend my money in Huron or Catawba.