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City Misses Boat in Legal Battle with Activist | Angel Castillo Jr

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City Misses Boat in Legal Battle with Activist | Angel Castillo Jr

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City Misses Boat in Legal Battle with Activist
Friday, January 18, 2013 — Angel Castillo Jr

The zealous enforcers from the city of Riviera Beach who seized and destroyed civic activist Fane Lozman’s gray plywood houseboat owe him an apology.

And they, or, rather, the city’s taxpayers, will soon owe him money damages and a large sum – maybe more than $300,000.00 -- for legal fees.

It took almost four years of litigation for the municipal bureaucrats to finally get pushed back.
The U. S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision this month, rejected the city’s contention that the two-story houseboat was a “vessel” subject to federal maritime (“admiralty”) law.  No, it’s a house, said the black-robed justices, and its seizure and destruction were wrongful.

Federal maritime law defines a “vessel” as including “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water”.

Justice Stephen Breyer explained that Lozman’s 57-by-12-foot floating abode, as a matter of common sense, was not designed for water transport.

In March of 2006, Lozman, 51, inventor of a patented financial trading software program named Scanshift, had tethered his houseboat at the Riviera Beach Municipal Marina.  Lozman, who now lives in the Miami area, registered the houseboat as his homestead under the Florida Constitution, which in most cases prohibits the forced sale of a resident’s home.

He became involved in Riviera Beach politics, and was instrumental in a successful campaign against a proposed $2.4-billion redevelopment plan for the economically strapped city of 33,000 residents.

Shortly thereafter, the marina cited Lozman for violating its rules, including for walking his dog Lady, a 10-pound dachshund, without a muzzle.

Riviera Beach then filed an “in rem” lawsuit against Lozman’s houseboat in the federal district court in West Palm Beach in April of 2009.  The city claimed that Lozman had failed to comply with new marina rules and owed dockage fees.

In November 2009, U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas ruled that the houseboat was a “vessel” subject to federal maritime law, and awarded the city a judgment for $6,093.14.

Federal marshals seized the houseboat with all of Lozman’s furniture and personal possessions inside, and towed it to Miami, where it was sold at a public auction.  The city of Riviera Beach placed the winning bid for $4,100.00, and then had the houseboat destroyed.

Lozman appealed to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, arguing that Judge Dimitrouleas never had jurisdiction because his houseboat was not a “vessel” covered by federal maritime law. In 2011, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in favor of the city, also finding that the houseboat was a “vessel”.
Undeterred, in November 2011 Lozman took his crusade to the highest court in the land. Against all odds, he won. He had not lived in a federally regulated “vessel” in Riviera Beach, after all.

The taxpayers of Riviera Beach should now demand that the city council make public how much of their money was spent in chasing the pesky Lozman and his houseboat away, including whatever damages and attorneys’ fees he is ultimately awarded against the city. 

And they should consider, including at the next local election, whether these expenses were a wise use of their taxes.

Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami. He can be reached at [email protected].

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