Bill would create felony charge for drunk boating

Published 12:10 am Friday, May 13, 2016

SALISBURY — The N.C. House on Thursday unanimously passed a measure that would raise impaired boating penalties to the same level as drunk driving.

Called Sheyenne’s Law, the bill is named after a 17-year-old Cabarrus County girl who was killed last year on Lake Norman. Rep. Larry Pittman, of Cabarrus County, was a lead sponsor of the bill, and on Thursday he spoke briefly about the measure on the House floor.

“Sheyenne Marshall was a very beautiful, 17-year-old young lady with a love for life and a lot going for her,” Pittman said. “She was very active, very outgoing and friendly, loved softball and there’s now a softball tournament in her honor.”

Pittman then recounted Marshall’s death. He said a drunk boater swerved to miss another boat and hit Marshall, killing her. In the aftermath of her death, Marshall’s family asked Pittman to help change sentencing law relating to drunk driving, he said.

“Sentencing for this act is way out of proportion to if the same thing had been done with a car,” he said. “It’s really a very common-sense, straight-forward bill.”

While speaking about the bill Thursday, Pittman said in 2015 seven people in North Carolina died as a result of impaired boating.

The bill received unanimous support from all House members, including the two who represent Rowan County. Rep. Carl, Ford, R-76, was among the four primary sponsors.

Under current law, boating while impaired is a misdemeanor. Impaired boaters who cause serious injury or death could be charged with a felony under the proposed law. A number of factors influence how offenders could be sentenced if the measure becomes law. However, the law would mean those charged with death by impaired boating would face more time in jail than those charges with serious injury by impaired boating.

Ford said he hopes the increased penalties will prevent people from drinking and boating. He said boats should be treated the same as cars.

“It’s dangerous any day. It’s doesn’t matter whether it’s the middle of January and you’re fishing,” Ford said. “You’re operating a motor vehicle … I hope it makes people think and just not do it.”

In Sheyenne’s law, a person charged with death by impaired boating cannot be prosecuted for manslaughter as part of the same death. A person charged with manslaughter could also not be charged with death by impaired boating as part of the same death.

With its passage through the House on Thursday, the bill next heads to the North Carolina Senate. If it becomes law, the new felony classification would become effective on Dec. 1.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.