Governor Kasich in Port Clinton at the signing of the Boater Freedom Act. Photo by John Schaffner
Wednesday afternoon at the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Center in Port Clinton Governor John R. Kasich signed into law House Bill 29, known as the “Boater Freedom Act,” which establishes criteria for watercraft safety inspections on Ohio’s waters. This legislation should decrease the number of safety inspections that recreational boaters experience on Lake Erie and all of Ohio’s waterways.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director (ODNR) James Zehringer attended the signing, which took place at the Governor’s Fish Ohio Day in Port Clinton. Zehringer praised the legislative efforts to craft a bill that defines when state and local law enforcement officers may board recreational watercraft for the purpose of conducting vessel safety inspections.
“ODNR’s primary focus remains the safety of Ohio’s boaters, and the safety inspection program has proven to be a valuable tool,” said Zehringer. “This legislation will provide a positive step toward Ohio boaters being able to enjoy their time even more on Ohio’s lakes and rivers.”
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Rex Damschroder (R-Fremont) and Chris Redfern (D-Catawba), which went into effect with the Governor’s signature, establishes that a state or local law enforcement officer will no longer have the authority to stop or board a vessel to conduct a safety inspection unless the owner or operator voluntarily requests such an inspection; there is reasonable suspicion the vessel, its equipment or its operator is in violation of watercraft or local law; or the boat is being inspected as part of an authorized checkpoint.
Rep. Redfern applauded the state legislature’s passage of House Bill 29, which subjects such searches to the same laws and regulations established for motor vehicles in the state.
“There is no reason that peaceful, law-abiding citizens enjoying Lake Erie should be subjected to random and arbitrary stops,” said Rep. Redfern. “We wouldn't think to tolerate this on land because such practices are fraught with opportunities for abuse. These random stops can undermine public confidence in law enforcement. Ultimately, the perception that enforcement is unfair can also undermine the ability of officers to best do their jobs by denying them our full confidence.”
Stories of boaters being stopped multiple times in the same day are somewhat commonplace in on Lake Erie, as are the citizen complaints that usually follow. Currently, random searches and inspections are at the discretion of law enforcement.
Rep. Redfern’s predecessor in the Ohio House, Rep. Dennis Murray of Sandusky, introduced similar legislation last General Assembly. Great Lake states are becoming increasingly aware of the problems such stops and searches pose not only for tourism, but for the satisfaction of law-abiding community members who regularly use the waterways. Michigan enacted a law based on similar legislation last year with near-unanimous support.
The bill additionally exempts charter boat captains and others holding certain U.S. Coast Guard credentials and endorsements from completing Ohio's boater education course. When testifying in support of the bill, ODNR Division of Watercraft Chief Rodger Norcross said those individuals are already educated in boater safety through the process of obtaining their license.
House Bill 29 only directs the activities of state and local law enforcement agencies; it does not change the policies, procedures or other activities of the U.S. Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security or other federal agencies.
Rep. Redfern’s House District is home to more recreational and commercial boaters than any other area of the state. For a fourth consecutive year in 2012, Ohio ranked among the top 10 states nationally with a record 435,310 registered watercraft, according to the ODNR Division of Watercraft.
The ODNR Division of Watercraft Division and its 89 commissioned law enforcement officers are responsible for enforcing state boating rules on all state waterways, providing education programs and investigating boating-related accidents. An estimated 3 million Ohioans enjoy recreational boating in the state annually. For more information on Ohio’s boating programs and boating rules, go to www.watercraft.ohiodnr.gov.