Negligent boating law capsizes in Panhandle

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SANDPOINT — A ruling in the 1st Judicial District that Idaho’s negligent boating law is unconstitutionally vague is now final.

The state opted not to appeal the district court determination to the Idaho Supreme Court, court records show.

The ruling on the state’s negligent operation law stems from a case in which a Seattle man was charged for driving a powerboat into an anchored cabin cruiser at Priest Lake on July 4, 2012.

Nobody aboard the cabin cruiser was injured, although several people aboard the boat Todd Frederick Stauber was driving were.

Stauber was charged with negligent operation of a vessel, a misdemeanor.

Stauber’s defense counsel, Sandpoint attorney Bryce Powell, argued that the law was so vague that even lawful conduct could be construed as illegal. Powell cited a 1958 Idaho Supreme Court case which struck down the state’s former negligent operation of a motor vehicle statute because it contained no comprehensive standard of what constituted such misconduct.

Bonner County Magistrate Court Judge Debra Heise agreed that the law was unconstitutionally vague earlier this year and the case against Stauber was dismissed.

Heise noted in her ruling that the negligent driving statute was amended to enumerate prohibited conduct, but lawmakers inexplicably used the same faulty language in the negligent driving statute when they drafted the negligent operation of a vessel statute more than 30 years after the Idaho Supreme Court case.

The lower court ruling was appealed to the district court, but Judge Jeff Brudie upheld Heise’s ruling and subsequently issued a mandate requiring the magistrate court comply with the void-for-vagueness determination.

“This Court’s Opinion and Order on appeal has now become final,” Brudie wrote in a Nov. 21 remittitur.

The mandate is binding upon magistrate courts in the 1st Judicial District, which encompasses boating communities throughout the northern Panhandle. However, its applicability in other judicial districts in Idaho could remain subject to challenge absent a supreme court ruling.

State Sen. Shawn Keough, a Republican who represents Bonner and Boundary counties, said she is researching the issue and it could surface during the coming legislative session.

“I’m not aware of any other legislators that are looking at it, but, generally, we don’t have the opportunity to know what legislation might be introduced until we get to the capitol and start the session in January,” she said.

Keough said the lack of a supreme court ruling question does not necessarily mean lawmakers won’t perfect the language in the statute.

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