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Miami Cops Destroyed Man's Houseboat, Cost City $195,000

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One day in 2010, James Hoefling came home from work to find that his house had gone missing.

Hoefling's home was more mobile than others: He'd lived in a houseboat by Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove for 11 years. Hoefling, now 67, works as a marine technician. On August 20, 2010, he left to work on some wiring on a nearby ship, but midway through the workday, his cell phone rang. Oddly, a neighbor was calling — when he answered, the neighbor told him he'd seen some police in the area towing boats away. Hoefling blanched.

"When he gets back, his boat is gone," Hoefling's lawyer, Michael Wolgin, tells New Times. His home and virtually all of his belongings had vanished, and Hoefling began to panic. He says City of Miami Police illegally searched his home, stole it, and destroyed it without notifying him.

Hoefling says police threw nearly every single thing he owned directly into a trash compactor, allegedly in violation of a host of city and state laws. Hoefling himself was forced into homelessness, skipping from couch to couch and getting by on the generosity of a few friends.

"This was obviously extremely traumatic," Wolgin says. "Everything he had was destroyed."

In 2011, Hoefling sued the City of Miami and two Marine Patrol officers. His case was initially dismissed. But eventually, an appellate court overturned that decision, and after six years, Hoefling and the city settled the case in September.

Taxpayers are now on the hook for a $195,000 settlement, although the City of Miami did not admit guilt.

Many South Florida cities have launched an all-out war against houseboat owners in recent years. Florida has more boat owners than any other state in America, and a small percentage of them choose to live aboard their vessels to avoid dealing with landlords and leases. But liveaboards haven't been able to avoid their land-loving neighbors, who say unwashed maritime vagabonds are ruining South Florida's quality of life.

According to a March New Times feature story, boat owners along the eastern coast say they're being pushed into more expensive marinas or towed away simply for being unsightly. In 2015, Miami Beach outlawed docking unauthorized boats on "public property," but no similar laws exist on the mainland.

Hoefling alleges in court filings that the City of Miami regularly tries to impound or destroy boats just for looking ugly.

"The city refers to its systematic roundup and destruction of ugly boats in its waters as a 'cleanup' program,'" one amended complaint says. But few boaters have reported having their homes crushed with all their belongings inside. Hoefling lost a life's worth of memorabilia — clothing, pictures, etc. — just for docking his boat where the city didn't want it.
According to Hoefling's suit, he was given a minor ticket May 27, 2010, for not having a proper marine sanitation device onboard. (The device processes raw sewage.) According to a legal complaint, two City of Miami Police officers pulled up alongside Hoefling's boat that day. The cops hopped aboard, inspected his home, and told him his boat was in "derelict" condition despite the fact that almost all of its parts were working.

"'Derelict,' under Florida law, is not synonymous with ugly, and it means more even than simply missing a mast or engine, which plaintiff's vessel was not," the complaint reads. "Rather, to be derelict, a vessel must be 'left, stored, or abandoned' in a 'wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition.'" City Code Enforcement also slapped a warning sticker on the side of his boat. But the note didn't say Hoefling had committed any violations.

So Hoefling bought a sanitation device, and records show he paid a $90 civil fine June 3 of that year. He figured things were all right. But two months later, he rushed home to find his house and belongings missing.

According to the suit, two City of Miami cops entered Hoefling's houseboat illegally August 20, 2010. They removed one power generator and threw the boat and the rest of its contents into a trash compactor.

Photos show Hoefling later standing sadly atop the wreckage of his home. 

If Miami PD's move seems hasty, that's probably because it was illegal: Hoefling's lawyer says the police were required, by law, to at least remove all of his personal items before destroying the boat. 

"The procedures that were supposed to be followed weren't," Wolgin says. If a boat is lost or abandoned, he says, police must try to find the boat's owner before destroying it. Even if the boat was condemned, the city could have chosen to impound it rather than crush it.

In court filings, the police department claimed it gave Hoefling ample warnings before destroying his home.

But despite the fact that the cops had Hoefling's name and phone number, the suit says they never called him to warn him they were coming.

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