Impact of a DUI on a Coast Guard Operator’s License

The majority of the towing, salvage, and marine assistance industry’s members hold Coast Guard-issued licenses for various types of vessels, routes, and sizes. Most of the operators are familiar with the license application, examination, upgrade, and renewal processes. However, a much smaller number are aware of the criteria the Coast Guard applies to initiate suspension and revocation action against a license, for a variety of offenses. What follows is a brief discussion of this process, its consequences, and the responsibilities that accompany the issuance and use of any Coast Guard license from the operator of a 20′ rigid hull inflatable to the Master of the largest supertankers.

While acting under the authority of their license, operators are required to operate their vessels in a safe manner, within the limitations of his or her license and in compliance with any applicable laws and regulations. The operator must be mentally and physically competent and must not operate the vessel in a negligent manner. Furthermore, even if you are not acting under the authority of your license, i.e. ashore and not engaged in any marine assistance capacity, you could be held accountable for your actions. Any drug-related, serious alcohol-related event (e.g. DUI, a fatal accident, or reckless driving if alcohol is involved), or other serious criminal convictions could lead to the potentially permanent loss of your operator’s license or preclude its renewal when it expires. If this happens, the mariner must wait an extensive probationary period with no further violations before the license will be renewed. The primary purpose of a personnel investigation or action is to promote safety on the high seas and the navigable waters of the U.S., and to prevent or mitigate personnel related hazards to life, property, and the marine environment. The Suspension and Revocation (S&R) process is remedial in nature and not intended to maintain discipline on vessels. Only if a disciplinary problem constitutes a hazard to life, property, or the environment will a personnel investigation be contemplated. The investigation may result in administrative action being taken against an individual’s license and/or Merchant Mariner Document (MMD).

The Coast Guard may initiate a personnel investigation upon report or evidence that an individual has committed one of the following acts* while acting under the authority of his/her license: Incompetence, misconduct, negligence, or a violation of law or regulation (*as defined in Title 46, Code of Federal Regulation Part 5). Furthermore, an investigation will be initiated if a mariner fails a drug-screening test or has been convicted of a dangerous drug law within the past ten years.

During the course of the investigation, the Investigating Officer (IO) will conduct interviews, gather evidence, and issue subpoenas if necessary. If the Coast Guard determines there is substantial evidence of an offense, the IO may issue a complaint against the respondent. The IO may offer to settle the matter with a letter of warning or proceed to a formal Suspension and Revocation (S&R) hearing.

The S&R hearing will be heard in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) under the protocols of the Administrative Procedures Act (5 USC 551 et seq.). In an Administrative hearing, there are opening and closing statements, direct and cross-examinations, and both the Coast Guard and the respondent can present evidence to the judge. The accused respondent may elect representation by an attorney but it is not required. The ALJ may ask questions of both parties. Since the S&R proceedings are remedial in nature, the administrative rules and procedures are less rigid than a criminal court, which could impose jail time or a criminal fine. Instead of proving the case beyond “a reasonable doubt,” the IO has to prove the case by “a preponderance of evidence.” Furthermore, the ALJ usually affords the respondent and the Coast Guard quite a bit of latitude concerning the use of legal procedures and the interpretation of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Once both sides have presented their cases, the ALJ will issue a Decision and Order, which recites the disposition of the case. If the Coast Guard did not prove its case, it will be dismissed. If the Coast Guard did prove its case, the ALJ can issue a warning, suspend a license (with or without probation), or revoke it. The IO will make a recommendation to the ALJ and the respondent can offer mitigating evidence before the ALJ issues the order. For the most severe and all drug-related offenses, the ALJ must revoke the operator’s license.

If a suspension or revocation is ordered, the respondent will have to turn his or her license over to the Coast Guard at the hearing. There are avenues for appeal and other provisions for depositing or surrendering a license in lieu of a hearing. These options, and more detailed information and policy on the administrative actions are discussed in Title 46, Code of Federal Regulations Part 5 and Title 33, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 20. The Investigation Department of your local USCG Marine Safety Office can also be contacted for additional information or further explanations.

This is a very brief synopsis of the entire S&R process. Every licensed operator should be familiar with the laws, regulations, and standards of conduct that must be met. Failure to meet these responsibilities could directly impact your license, business, and livelihood.

Written by Allen Trapp who is board certified by the National College for DUI Defense and the author of Georgia DUI Survival Guide Visit Website

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