State Politics

Deadly drunken boating accidents would result in jail time under NC House bill

Rep. Larry Pittman is the sponsor of legislation to crack down on drunk boaters.
Rep. Larry Pittman is the sponsor of legislation to crack down on drunk boaters.

Drunken boaters and drivers convicted of a felony charge in a deadly accident would face jail time under a bill that cleared an N.C. House committee Tuesday.

Last year, Republican Rep. Larry Pittman of Concord sponsored a bill that created a new crime: Felony death by impaired boating. Until then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed Pittman’s bill into law, drunken boating was only a misdemeanor offense – even if the boater caused an accident that killed someone.

Pittman presented a new bill Tuesday to make sure anyone convicted under the law won’t avoid jail. “This bill is coming back to put some teeth in it,” he told the House Judiciary II Committee Tuesday afternoon.

Pittman wants to require jail time for anyone convicted of felony death by vehicle or felony death by impaired boating, preventing judges from offering a lighter sentence for first-time offenders. The jail time would have to be at least one-quarter of the time called for by the maximum sentence.

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, says jail time makes sense. “If my wife slaps me and I call the police, she’s going to jail for one night,” he said. “But if you killed somebody with a boat because you’re drunk, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get any time in jail.”

Some Democrats on the committee voiced concerns that the bill might limit judges’ ability to adjust the sentence based on the circumstances of the crime. At least one voted against the bill, although the committee held a voice vote and no count was taken.

A judge, Pittman said, “still has some discretion, he could give the full sentence or not.” He added that a deadly accident is “sentencing somebody to life – I think that’s worthy of some jail time.”

Pittman’s 2016 legislation was named Sheyenne’s Law after a teenage girl in his Cabarrus County district who died in an accident caused by a drunk boater.