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State lawmakers seek stiffer BWI laws

Michelle Mannino is comforted by Sen. Charles Fuschillo

Michelle Mannino is comforted by Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. after she talked about her late husband Christopher Mannino during a press conference to announce tougher penalties on drunken boaters. Mannino's husband was killed when a drunken boater crashed into the boat he was in. (July 19, 2012)

Joined by the widow of a West Islip man killed by an accused drunken boater off Captree Island, lawmakers Thursday outlined plans for legislation that would toughen boating-while-intoxicated laws and make it mandatory for boaters to pass a safety course.

"New York State's DUI laws are among the toughest in the nation, but our BUI laws have certainly not kept pace," state Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) said at Wantagh Park Marina.

"There needs to be parallel progress between removing drunk drivers from the roads and also the waterways," he said.

Early on June 23, the shark-fishing boat Christopher Mannino, 39, was on was struck by a powerboat, knocking him into the water under Robert Moses Causeway. Mannino drowned, and the powerboat operator was charged with BWI.

Michelle Mannino, his widow, issued a stern warning to boaters Thursday. If Fuschillo's bill passes, as she hopes, "You're going to operate a vessel drunk, you're going to go to jail, and you're going to face the same penalties you'll face if you're operating a vehicle."

Harsher penaltiesHarsher penalties

Fuschillo, sponsor of the state's current BWI law, said he plans to introduce the new measure in the next legislative session.

The bill will include harsher penalties for driving drunk with young children aboard, mandatory suspensions of boating privileges and motor vehicle driver's licenses, and a new charge of aggravated BWI for drivers with a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent or higher. New York State's legal limit is 0.08.

Part of the proposed legislation is being modeled after Leandra's Law, which was enacted in 2009 and makes it an automatic felony for people to drive drunk when children 15 and younger are passengers. The bill would also link driving, boating and snowmobiling as under-the-influence offenses, so that violators can be charged as repeat offenders.

"This closes a loophole," Fuschillo said.

The lawmaker has also demanded that marine safety classes be mandatory for all boaters. Now only those operating personal watercraft, and boaters younger than 18, are required to take the courses.

Climate for changeClimate for change

Past attempts to regulate boat safety have fallen short in Albany. A bill seeking to link all alcohol-related violations died last session when, after passing the Senate, it failed in the Assembly.

But now, lawmakers say, the time is ripe to try again.

So far this summer, there have been 12 BWI arrests on Long Island; five in Nassau County and seven in Suffolk. The most recent one, on Monday, involved a Seaford man who police say didn't realize for minutes that two of his passengers were no longer on the boat. They were rescued in the Atlantic Ocean a mile off Jones Beach; an investigation is ongoing.

Fuschillo said he's trying to round up sponsors for his bill.

"Until we see the details of the bill, we can't comment," said Kerri Biche, spokeswoman for the Assembly's majority Democrats. But Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), who has supported requiring boat safety classes for violators, said he would be reaching out to Fuschillo Friday.

"Sometimes it takes a tragedy to capture the attention of lawmakers," he said. "Legislators tend to act in response to organized voices, or just a cacophony of voices, if there's a follow-up to an event such as a tragedy."

Hurdles to passageHurdles to passage

The biggest challenge for lawmakers in getting BWI penalties passed has been overcoming resistance to safety mandates, Englebright said.

"Boating safety -- it's viewed as somehow different," he said. "There are no painted lanes on the water, so it's viewed as sort of an area that has different rules by its very nature as an open space."

Thursday, Michelle Mannino remembered her husband as hardworking, but eager to spend as much time as he could with his family.

Though he performed roadwork for Stasi Brothers of Westbury, and worked six days a week, he still played an active role in the lives of his two children: daughter Hailee, 11, and son Chris Jr., 6.

"He was my whole life," his widow said. "I'm lost. How can you ever drink and drive anything?"With Ted PhillipsProposed law would

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