Waters grow choppy for state boating law

SANDPOINT — A district court judge is buoying a lower court’s ruling that Idaho’s negligent boating law is unconstitutionally vague.

Todd Frederick Stauber, a 39-year-old from Seattle, was cited for grossly negligent operation of a vessel after slamming broadside into an anchored cabin cruiser following an Independence Day fireworks display at Priest Lake’s Luby Bay in 2012.

Under Idaho’s Safe Boating Act, it’s unlawful to operate a vessel in a manner that endangers life, limb or property.

Stauber’s defense counsel, Sandpoint attorney Bryce Powell, moved to dismiss the misdemeanor offense, arguing that statute is so vague that even lawful conduct at the helm could be deemed criminal. Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Katie Murdock countered that plowing into another vessel amidships qualified as prohibited conduct.

Powell bolstered his argument by citing an Idaho Supreme Court case, state vs. Pigge, which successfully challenged the vague language in the state’s 1950s-era negligent driving statute.

Bonner County Magistrate Court Judge Debra Heise granted the motion to dismiss, finding that the negligent operation statute failed to identify any general or specific acts that were prohibited. As a result, the law violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The state appealed the dismissal in district court, but Judge Jeff Brudie ruled that Heise’s analysis was “sound and consistent” with the high court’s ruling in the Pigge matter.

“The statute lacks sufficient clarity and definiteness such that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited, and is worded in a manner that allows arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, being so general and indefinite that it encompasses not only acts properly and legally punishable, but also acts that cannot be punished,” Brudie wrote in a six-page order filed on Wednesday.

As a result of Brudie’s ruling, Heise’s void-for-vagueness ruling on the negligent operations law can be binding upon other magistrate court judges in the state’s 1st Judicial District. The negligent operations law could be struck down entirely if the two lower-court rulings are upheld by the supreme court.

However, the state has not decided if it will appeal to the high court.

“We are going to review the ruling and discuss the matter with the Attorney General’s Office before making a decision on any further appeals. Sometimes it is necessary to obtain a ruling from the Supreme Court before the Legislature will act,” Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall said.

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