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Stops Based on Florida Vessel Safety Law

According to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida leads the nation in the number of vessels registered in any state with close to one million vessels. See 2016 Boating Accident Statistical Report, Introduction, II (2016).

Chapter 327, F.S., titled the “Florida Vessel Safety Law,” includes laws relating to vessel safety, such as boating safety education course requirements, vessel operation requirements, and the delineation of boating-restricted areas.

The task of managing the waterways in Florida to provide for safe boating often falls on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The Division of Law Enforcement within the FWC enforces resource protection and boating safety laws while providing protection to those who enjoy Florida’s waterways.

In many cases, FWC officers will claim that the stop of a boat or the detention of its passengers is permitted because of Florida Vessel Safety Law. In fact, the legality of any stop and the length of the detention is an often litigated issue that might lead to the outright dismissal of the citation.

Attorney for Vessel and Boating Citations in Florida

If you were cited for a civil or criminal violation of Florida law related to your operation of a boat, an experienced attorney can help you determine whether the stop and detention of the boat was legal. If the stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, your attorney can file a motion to suppress any evidence gathered during the stop or prolonged detention.

Even if the evidence was legally gathered, your attorney can help you show that no violation of the law actually occurred or assert other important defenses.

Call the experienced attorneys for boating citations in Tampa, FL, to discuss your case. During the consultation, we can review any paperwork you received and help you understand your rights and obligations under Florida law.

Our main office is in downtown Tampa in Hillsborough County. We have a second office in New Port Richey in Pasco County. We fight boating citations throughout the greater Tampa Bay area including Hernando County, Pasco County, Pinellas County, Manatee County, Hillsborough County and Polk County, FL.

Call 813-250-0500.


Who Can Enforce Florida Vessel Safety Law?

The Florida Vessel Safety Law, as well as vessel titling, certificate, and registration requirements, are authorized to be enforced by the following entities or officers:

  • The Division of Law Enforcement within the FWC and its officers;
  • Sheriffs of the various counties and their deputies;
  • Municipal police officers; and
  • Any other law enforcement officer described in s. 943.10, F.S.

FWC officers are considered to be law enforcement officers under Florida law for most purposes. For example, Section 943.10, F.S., defines the term “law enforcement officer” as

“any person who is elected, appointed, or employed full time by any municipality or the state or any political subdivision thereof; who is vested with authority to bear arms and make arrests; and whose primary responsibility is the prevention and detection of crime or the enforcement of the penal, criminal, traffic, or highway laws of the state…”


The Legality of Safety Equipment and Inspections

The following safety items are required by state and federal law to be aboard a vessel and if found to be missing during a safety inspection can result in a vessel citation:

  • Visible distress signals;
  • Fire extinguishers;
  • Navigation lights;
  • Personal floatation devices; and
  • Sound-producing devices.

Pursuant to Florida Statute Section 327.56, 327.70(4) and Section 328.18, F.S., the FWC and any other law enforcement agency are authorized to inspect and investigate vessels as necessary to carry out and enforce the Florida Vessel Safety Law.

However, if the officer stops the boat and boards the boat for the purpose of conducting a safety inspection, the protections of the Fourth Amendment are often triggered.

The U.S. Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government through the Fourth Amendment, which provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….”

The extent to which an individual is protected by the Fourth Amendment depends on the location of the search or seizure. Fourth Amendment protections are not less just because the stop occurs on the water, however, officers do have the right to conduct safety inspections when conducted in a reasonable manner and in full compliance with Florida law.

In some cases, probable cause is necessary to stop a vessel. In other cases, something less than probable cause is needed depending on the circumstances. For example, as explained in Section 327.56, F.S., an officer is prohibited from boarding a vessel to make a safety inspection if the owner or operator is not aboard.

If the owner or operator is aboard, an officer is authorized to board a vessel with the consent or when the officer has probable cause or knowledge to believe that a violation of the Florida Vessel Safety Law is occurring. An officer may board a vessel if the operator refuses or is unable to display the safety equipment required by law when requested to do so by an officer or when the safety equipment to be inspected is permanently installed and is not visible for inspection unless the officer boards the vessel.

As explained in Section 327.70, F.S., if a vessel has a properly displayed and valid safety inspection decal created or approved by the FWC, a law enforcement officer may not stop such vessel for the sole purpose of inspecting the vessel for compliance with the safety equipment carriage and use requirements, unless there is a reasonable suspicion that a violation of a safety equipment carriage or use requirement has occurred or is occurring.


This article was last updated on Friday, March 22, 2019.

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