River fatality inspires stronger law against boating under the influence

Boaters beware.

A fatal boating accident on the Connecticut River three years ago has spurred stronger laws against boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week signed a bill that enables authorities to charge boaters who are under the influence even if tests are administered outside of the two-hour time limit.

The law is inspired by a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Connecticut River in July 2007. Susan Brandes, a chemical engineer from South Windsor, died of multiple blunt-trauma injuries after an unmanned powerboat whose pilot had fallen off the boat into the river sliced into her 14-foot sailboat, crushing her and throwing her into the water.

The boat's driver, Gregory Siege, was drunk. He is serving a four-year prison sentence for boating under the influence, second-degree manslaughter and an unrelated drunken-driving charge, but while his case was pending in New London Superior Court, it was revealed that urine tests could not be used to prosecute him for boating under the influence of alcohol because the Department of Environmental Protection had administered the tests 10 minutes beyond the two-hour time limit. The accident scene was chaotic, and Siege, who was rescued from the water by a passing boater, was not returned to shore for an hour.

Brandes' husband, whose hand was partially amputated by a propeller as he tried to rescue his wife, had testified in favor of the bill, which was introduced by State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford.

New London prosecutors Peter A. McShane and Sarah E. Steere had also supported the bill along with representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Marine Trades Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Brandes' stepdaughter, Dana Brandes, said she had traveled to Connecticut from Maine this week in hopes of attending and speaking at a bill-signing ceremony, but that the governor signed the bill Thursday without notifying the family.

The governor said in a press release that the new legislation builds on a 2009 drunken boating bill she proposed and signed into law that imposes harsher penalties - including longer prison sentences - for boaters convicted of killing someone while operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That law also arose out of the 2007 fatality.

"The horrors of that tragedy three years ago on the Connecticut River will resonate with everyone affected - family, friends and the first responders whose priority was to save lives that day," Rell said. "Drinking and boating cannot and will not be tolerated in Connecticut. There is far too much at stake."

Under the new law, chemical tests that are administered outside of the two-hour time limit can be used in court hearings as long as the state brings in an expert witness to testify that the test results are still valid.

k.florin@theday.com

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