South Florida man wins houseboat case in Supreme Court

01/15/2013 1:18 PM

02/21/2013 6:46 AM

A Florida resident actually had his “boat floated” Tuesday by the Supreme Court, as justices ruled that the city of Riviera Beach could not regulate his home as a maritime vessel.

In a peculiar case that captured national attention from gambling companies and others, the court in a 7-2 ruling concluded the city went too far when it used maritime law to seize and ultimately destroy the floating home of former commodities trader Fane Lozman. Besides giving Lozman a personal victory, the ruling clarifies and narrows how government agencies can deploy maritime law.

“But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.

Instead, Breyer stressed, Lozman’s dockside home was “a house-like plywood structure” that differed “significantly from an ordinary houseboat” in ways large and small. Maritime law only applies, under the court’s new ruling, if “a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.”

This matters, for instance, to the American Gaming Association members that filed a legal brief siding with Lozman. The gambling companies feared that if Riviera Beach prevailed, then other agencies could likewise impose new maritime law restrictions on the 60-plus “riverboat” gambling facilities docked in states like Mississippi and Missouri.

Houseboat owners in Seattle and Sausalito, Calif., likewise, urged the court not to extend the reach of maritime law.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy dissented, warning that the court’s ruling “reaches well beyond relatively insignificant boats like Lozman’s craft” to potentially call into question regulations of larger vessels.

But the Obama administration had sided with Lozman, arguing that adopting what Breyer dismissed as an “anything that floats” test would place unnecessary inspection burdens on the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Not every floating structure is a ‘vessel,’” Breyer wrote. “To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not ‘vessels.’”

The fictional wooden puppet Pinocchio, in the story alluded to by Breyer, was, during the course of many misadventures, swallowed by a whale named Monstro. Eventually, Pinocchio escapes along with his creator, Geppetto.

Lozman is a former Chicago commodities and options trader. The one-time Marine Corps officer is also known locally as a self-described corruption fighter, who battled persistently with Riviera Beach officials.

Lozman bought his 60-foot-by-12 foot floating home in 2002 and docked it at the Riviera Beach marina after Hurricane Wilma destroyed his former marina. The rectangular structure lacked an engine, bilge pumps, navigation aids, lifeboats or other devices usually found on waterborne vessels.

It was equipped for connection to land-based sewer lines and received its power through an extension cord. Its small rooms looked like ordinary living quarters, with French doors and ordinary windows instead of watertight portholes.

But Riviera Beach officials, following extended conflict with Lozman, eventually turned to U.S. maritime law in 2009 to seize the home as a vessel. They towed it to Miami, where they bought it at auction for $4,100 and then had it destroyed.

“The houseboat was in violation of the wet slip agreement, and it posed a hazard to other vessels in the marina if, because of its flimsy moorings, it came unmoored during a storm,” Riviera Beach attorney David C. Frederick declared during oral argument last year.

In a rare visual touch, the court’s majority included in Breyer’s decision a photograph of Lozman’s former floating home.

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