A few years back, a man in Riviera Beach bought a house made out of plywood and let it float on the water and local officials were not happy about that. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the city wanted Fane Lozman to get rid of the floating structure that they said was a boat, but that Lozman called home. Under the authority of federal maritime law, the city seized the boat and had it destroyed.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that was wrong.
But boat dwellers and local government officials nationwide have little to be concerned about in light of the court's ruling, legal experts say. While the intriguing case of the eccentric waterman versus the overreaching boat police made for amusing national headlines, the court's decision will likely have little impact on most vessel owners.
"Whatever the hell this thing was, it was not anything that anybody would say is a boat," said Richard A. Harrison, a Tampa lawyer and adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law. "For the recreational boater, this case has no impact."
The case, which drew concerns from people who live and work on boats or boat-like contraptions, boiled down to the federal maritime definition of a "vessel."
"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, other agencies could 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.
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.'"
Though Lozman prevailed, the effect of the ruling on government's ability to regulate such structures might be narrow. Just because his home was not considered a vessel doesn't mean he would not be subject to local zoning regulations, state taxes or other rules.
"I don't have a clue why the city did what it did," said Carl Nelson, a Tampa attorney and maritime law professor at Stetson. "There are various state law remedies they could have used here."
Material from McClatchy Newspapers supplements this report.