Not every floating home is a boat.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided Tuesday with a Florida man, ruling that his floating home was a house and that the city where he docked it could not seize it under federal maritime law.
Reporting the story, NPR said the case could affect thousands of houseboat owners nationwide.
Fane Lozman bought the 60-by-12-foot floating home for $17,000 and remodeled it to look and feel like a house on water. It had French doors on three sides, a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom and kitchen, along with a stairway leading to a second-level office, where Lozman worked as a commodities trader. The structure had no self-propulsion, no independent electricity, not even a rudder. To move it on water, it had to be towed.
In 2006, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the marina where Lozman kept his floating home, he had it towed to a marina in Riviera Beach about 80 miles north of Miami.
Lozman soon became something of a gadfly in Riviera Beach, challenging the city's plans to build a $2.4 billion luxury development in the marina. As a result of his efforts, Lozman says, the development project fell apart and the city tried to evict him, contending — erroneously, he says — that he owed docking fees and that his 10-pound dachshund was a public danger.
In 2008, the city came up with a new redevelopment plan, and Lozman again said he would fight it. This time, the city went to federal court, seeking to have the floating home declared a "vessel" under maritime law. If it was a vessel under federal law, the city could put a lien on the structure until he paid the fees it said he owed.
Lozman represented himself in court, arguing that the floating home was not a vessel and rebutting the city's argument that he owed docking and trespass fees. But a federal judge ruled against him, declared the structure a vessel and ordered him to pay roughly $3,000 in docking fees. After a federal appeals court agreed, Lozman's floating home was put up for public auction and the city bought it.
"The city of Riviera Beach went to the auction, outbid the public that attended, purchased my home, and then the next day immediately started destroying it, along with my furniture, at taxpayer's expense," Lozman says.
He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, represented by the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Clinic. On Tuesday the high court, by a 7-to-2 vote, said the city had no right to a lien against Lozman's floating home under federal maritime law because the structure is not a vessel.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that "not every floating structure is a vessel."
"To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons ... or Pinocchio (when inside the whale)," none of these are vessels, Breyer said, even though "they are 'artificial contrivances' capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so."
Still, Breyer said, none of these is a vessel under federal maritime law because none is "used as a means of transportation." Similarly, he said, no reasonable observer looking at Lozman's floating home "would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water."