Written by attorney Timothy F. Sullivan

Understanding Florida's Derelict Vessels Laws

I am sure you have seen them as you drive over causeways and bridges. Sad looking orphaned power boats left grounded and long forgotten on oyster bars or blown into thick mangroves. Perhaps badly weathered sailboats partially submerged on shoals with masts that seemingly reach up from a watery grave. You have probably also observed barnacle encrusted boats that have been stripped by scavengers of every marine grade part capable of bringing a salvageable recovery value. Many of these boats masquerade as “seaworthy" by precariously swinging on rotted anchor rodes.

Is my Boat in Violation of Florida’s Law Prohibiting Derelict Vessels?

The state of Florida defines these casualties of neglect and abandonment within Florida Statute section 823.11(1)(a)(b)&(c). The legislature calls them "derelict vessels." These are boats that are typically “wrecked, junked, or substantially in a dismantled condition upon any public waters of this state." It is interesting to note that this legal definition may even include a boat with its owner on board.

Derelict Vessels are Said to Create a Number of Problems that Include:

  • Navigational hazards;
  • Pollution from fuel, oil or other hazardous materials onboard;
  • Ecological and environmental considerations;
  • Esthetic eyesores that impact the image and economy of local municipalities;
  • Financial burdens on local and state authorities.

Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder

Boaters cannot anchor within private riparian rights (i.e. Hurricane Hole), or areas owned by the county (i.e. Shell Island). Likewise, the location the captain selects to anchor his vessel cannot interfere with the navigation of other vessels.

Otherwise, anchoring in most waterways is free and perfectly legal. But here is the rub… if a lawfully anchored vessel crosses the line of no longer being “seaworthy" to becoming “derelict, sunken or abandoned," you can count on a response from law enforcement. Nevertheless, just because a boat may be old or even ugly does not mean that it is necessarily derelict. Cosmetic challenges and a faded chalky finish are not legitimate concerns.

How Bad is the Derelict Vessel Problem?

In June of this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimated that 1,500 abandoned boats were littering the state’s waterways. Hundreds of derelict boats are documented to be in the inlets of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and other Pinellas county waterfront communities. FWC Derelict Vessel Manager, Phil Horning confirms that Pinellas is among the top five counties with the most abandoned boats. Although officers with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are primarily focused on this problem, each year the St. Petersburg Police Department also deals with 30 to 40 cases of derelict vessels.

Why All the Attention to Derelict Abandoned Boats?

In 2009, the Marine Debris Program Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) brought the problem of derelict boats to the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, The FWC reported that Florida was “plagued" with abandoned vessels. In 2010, the FWC sought to fight back by creating its “At Risk Vessel Program." FWC officers now “tag" suspect vessels with a bright yellow tag that warns the boat’s owner that their vessel is “in risk’ of being declared “derelict" unless certain problems are corrected. Keep in mind that at this juncture the yellow “tag" simply constitutes a warning and you are not yet in violation of the law. Detailed information is then entered into an online database that is accessible to all state, county and local law enforcement officers. This online database catalogs boats that show signs of neglect and provides information such as hull identification numbers, GPS locations, photos and even video documentation. View the online “ Statewide at-Risk & Derelict Vessel Map" (Select “FWSW" under “regions" and then click “search" to view designated boats in the Pinellas , Pasco and Hillsborough area.)

What if I am Notified that my Boat is Derelict?

If the owner of the vessel fails to comply with the yellow “At Risk" warning by not making the recommended corrections, the FWC will thereafter affix a bright orange adhesive notice to the boat that declares the vessel “derelict." More importantly, this notice warns the boat owner that unless he removes the vessel within five days, he will face fines and criminal charges.

Florida Statute Section 823.11 (4) makes it a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year and a $1,000.00 fine for boat owners to store, leave, or abandoned any derelict vessel.

Florida Statute Section 823.11(3)(a)provides that all costs incurred by the FWC or other law enforcement agency in the removal of any abandoned or derelict vessel shall be recoverable against the owner of the vessel.

If your vessel has been yellow tagged that it is “at risk" or affixed with a bright orange notice declaring the boat “derelict," you should contact our office immediately. It is extremely costly for the government to retain marine contractors to remove and properly dispose of abandoned vessels. A small boat commands a $600.00 salvage fee to remove, while larger vessels can amount to much more. Large barges have entailed costs of up to $100,000. If a boat is swamped or submerged, you can tack on an additional $25,000 surcharge. For economic reasons, law enforcement will often work with your attorney in his effort to secure you additional time and opportunity to remove the vessel. This can be critical in side-stepping expensive salvage fees and avoiding arrest and criminal prosecution.

Felony Criminal Prosecutions for Illegal ‘Dumping" of Boats

In addition to prosecuting individuals for violating the “derelict vessel" provisions of the law, th e State Attorney's Office has pursued criminal charges against our clients also on the theory of illegal dumping (violations of Florida’s litter law). Prosecution under this theory typically carries more serious penalties. These cases can be based on the following unlawful activities:

  • Attempting to create an artificial reef to attract fish by sinking your boat;
  • Deliberately cutting your boat free from the anchor line or dock to let it drift away;
  • Setting the vessel on fire while it is in the water in an effort to destroy it;
  • Deliberately sinking the vessel in an effort to avoid the cost, expense and inconvenience of a proper disposal;
  • Anchoring or mooring the vessel with no intention to perform maintenance or to keep the vessel seaworthy.

Florida statute section 403.413(6)(c) makes it a felony of the third degree punishable up to five years in state prison and a $5,000.00 fine to “dump litter in an amount exceeding five hundred pounds in weight, or 100 cubic feet in volume." In addition to the aforementioned fines and potential incarceration, the judge is permitted:

  • Order the violator to remove the vessel;
  • Repair or pay to restore damages caused by the illegal dumping, and
  • Perform public service hours related to the removal of litter dumped in violation of the law.

It should be noted that the illegal dumping statute provides thatboththe owner and/or the operator of the vessel can be prosecuted for this offense.

The Perils of Attempting to Avoid Detection by Law Enforcement

Our office has represented boat owners who have attempted to avoid detection by removing identifying information from their vessel that identifies them as the owner. However, keep in mind that Florida Statute section 328.07(3)(a) prohibits the destruction, removal, alteration, covering or defacement of the hull identification number or serial number of any vessel. Prosecution of this offense is a third degree felony under Florida Statute section 328.07(4)(c) punishable by up to five years in state prison and a $5,000.00 fine.

Protecting Against Allegations of Owning a Derelict Boat or Illegal Dumping

There have been many occasions where people have sold their boat and yet later were held civilly and criminally liable for their failure to remove a “derelict" vessel. Similar situations have occurred where boat owners have signed over their boat title to a buyer, only to later be accused of illegally dumping the vessel. How can this happen?

Keep in mind that it is the “registered owner" of the boat that is responsible. Often times, buyers of boats fail to apply for a transfer of title and ownership interest with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. They likewise fail to properly register the vessel with their local county tax collector’s office. As a result, state and county records continue to list the seller as the lawful owner. However under Florida law, it is the last “owner of record" that is legally responsible for the boat. Most of our clients who purchase a vessel recognize the need to timely apply for a new title and registration. However, very few people know that Florida Statute section 328.64 requires the seller of a vessel to notify the Department that they have sold their interest in a boat to another person within the past thirty days. This form (Number HSMV 82050) is available for free, at the Tax Collector’s office, or you can download this form courtesy of the DHSMV.

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