The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports:
The Supreme Court sunk the hopes of a Florida city Tuesday when it ruled that a houseboat was more house than boat.
The definition mattered because while a house is subject to terrestrial law, a boat may be ruled by maritime law.
For Fane Lozman, who lived on a floating domicile formerly moored at Riviera Beach, Fla., the distinction proved critical. After several disputes with Mr. Lozman, city officials seized his property using provisions of maritime law, auctioned it to satisfy his debts and—since the city itself was the winning bidder—destroyed it.
Mr. Lozman argued that his pied-a-eau was no boat, and therefore the city’s entire lawsuit was invalid.
By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court agreed. The 60-foot by 12-foot dwelling “consisted of a house-like plywood structure with French doors on three sides,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “It contained a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom and kitchen, along with a stairway leading to a second level with office space.” It had no engine, and could travel only by being towed.
The court previously has confronted such questions, deciding in 1903 that “the lack of self-propulsion” may be a relevant fact, in 1926 that a wharfboat was not a vessel but in 2005 that a dredge was. The city’s argument that the aquatic abode could potentially ply the seas was not dispositive, Justice Breyer wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.
“After all, a washtub is normally not a ‘vessel,’” even though Mother Goose recalls a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker who used one for such purposes, the court observed.
So here’s the rub-a-dub-dub: Something is not a boat if “a reasonable observer, looking to [its] physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water.”