The U.S. Supreme Court has taken on some of the most compelling debates in history: the struggle for civil rights, the power of corporations to influence political campaigns, a woman's right to get an abortion. Now, thanks to a South Florida activist, they'll be taking on another subject for our divided times:
What is a boat?
That's the basic question raised by a suit filed by Fane Lozman against the City of Riviera Beach, which has now made it to the Supreme Court and will be heard in October. (See our previous coverage.) Lozman used to live in a floating home in a Riviera Beach marina; after a nasty dispute with city honchos, the feds towed away his home and destroyed it.
Lozman says the home wasn't a boat or "vessel" -- it had no steering or engines and would have to be towed in order to move -- but a "floating home." Boats are subject to federal maritime law, while nonboat structures are not. When the city booted him from the marina, they were treating the home as a boat. When federal agents seized it, they seized it as a boat.
In a 58-page legal brief filed this week with the court, Lozman lays out his case to try to prove that "an indefinitely moored floating structure that is functionally an extension of land is not a vessel." He cites dozens of previous Supreme Court cases as precedent. He also argues that "conferring vessel status on indefinitely moored floating structures would distort maritime law."
For example -- and this gets wonky really fast -- he cites the Federal Maritime Lien act, which allows creditors to put out liens on vessels and seize them without a hearing for the owner. That's because those vessels are "usually absent from the home port, remote from the residence of her owners and without any large amount of money." The same rule can't be applied to moored floating structures like his former house, Lozman writes, because "a maritime lien can only exist upon movable things engaged in navigation, or upon things which are the subjects of commerce on the high seas or navigable waters."
That's the kind of thick legal lifting that Lozman does throughout the brief, setting up the arguments he'll bring before the court. In an email, Lozman writes that "about 1,200 hours went into this brief." Lozman represented himself at the district level but says he has "five accomplished lawyers" representing him from this point forward, with the assistance of four students from Stanford Law School that are helping do research and write the briefs.
Here's a link to the entire brief (PDF). Keep track of the Supreme Court case here.
Stefan Kamph: Follow on
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