Court rules boater law unconstitutionally vague

Charge dismissed in PL boat crash case

SANDPOINT — A criminal charge against a Seattle man who crashed his boat into another vessel on Priest Lake are being dismissed because the state law he was cited under has been ruled unconstitutionally vague.

Todd Frederick Stauber was charged with grossly negligent operation of a vessel, a misdemeanor, after he collided broadside with an anchored cabin cruiser at Luby Bay on July 4, 2012.

A couple aboard the cabin cruiser escaped serious injury, although several people in Stauber’s boat were injured and required medical treatment, according to Bonner County marine deputy reports.

Stauber, 38, pleaded not guilty and his defense counsel, Sandpoint attorney Bryce Powell, moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the section of code his client was being prosecuted under was unconstitutionally vague.

The Idaho Safe Boater Act makes it unlawful to operate a vessel in a manner that endangers life, limb or property. However, the statute does not specify what is considered prohibited conduct.

Powell argued during a Jan. 9 hearing that the law is so overbroad that even lawful conduct could be deemed criminal. Powell lashed that argument to a 1958 Idaho Supreme Court case, state v. Pigge.

In Pigge, a motorist was convicted of negligent driving for operating a vehicle in a manner that endangered or was likely to endanger persons or property. But the high court ruled the statute unconstitutional and void for uncertainty because it contained no comprehensive standard of negligent driving.

Judge Debra Heise granted the defense motion after hearing oral arguments on Jan. 9 and taking the matter under advisement, court records show.

Heise ruled that the negligent operation of a vessel statute fails to identify any general or specific acts that are prohibited. Stauber could have been driving carelessly, but a gust of wind or a wave could have also caused the collision, Heise said.

“As in Pigge, the statute in this case is so general and indefinite as to embrace not only acts properly and legally punishable, but also acts which cannot be punished,” Heise wrote in a dismissal order issued on Wednesday.

Heise noted that the Legislature amended the negligent driving statute after the Pigge ruling to include specific language defining the proscribed conduct and it has since withstood constitutional scrutiny. However, when lawmakers enacted the negligent operation of a vessel statute 35 years after the ruling in Pigge, they “inexplicably” used the same language that was held unconstitutional by the supreme court, Heise wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that statutes can be voided for vagueness if they fail to sufficiently define a criminal offense. Such statutes violate the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

It is not clear if the state intends to appeal Heise’s ruling.

A message seeking comment from Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Katie Murdock was not returned on Thursday.

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