January 16, 2013

Court: Houseboat is more home than boat

The 7-2 decision protects houseboat owners and riverboat gaming facilities from new restrictions.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - A Florida resident actually had his "boat floated" Tuesday by the Supreme Court, as the 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 that 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 also 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.

"I've been vindicated," Lozman said in an interview. "My argument from day one when my home was arrested by three armed federal marshals was: 'You guys don't have jurisdiction, this is a state issue.' At the end of the day I was right.

"One of my main motivations is that 10,000 floating homes around the country should not have to go through the horror show that I did to include having armed federal marshals breaking down the door of your home and seizing it. That should not happen in America."

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, warning about unnecessary inspection burdens on the Coast Guard.

 

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