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Houseboat is home, not vessel, justices rule

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By The Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 7:06 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A house that sits on the water is a floating home, not a vessel, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

The 7-2 decision upholds laws in California, Washington and other states that say houseboats are governed by local laws applying to homes, not maritime law that regulates vessels.

Justice Stephen Breyer said a vessel is something that is “actually used for transportation.” It is not “anything that floats,” he added.

The high court ruling is a victory for a Florida man who parked his gray, two-story houseboat at a marina in Rivera Beach, Fla. City officials later seized it for unpaid fees and had it destroyed. Their decision was upheld under federal maritime law.

The owner, Fane Lozman, appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his home would have been protected from seizure under ordinary laws governing real estate.

The justices agreed and sent the case back to Florida, where Lozman can seek to recover a $25,000 bond that was set aside.

It is not clear what the ruling will mean for riverboat casinos, an issue the court did not discuss.

Joining Breyer's opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented, in the term's first dissenting votes from a full court opinion. Sotomayor objected to the “reasonable observer” standard adopted by the majority.

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