A local government agency in Marin seems to have a knack for targeting the most defenseless people in a vulnerable community of mariners, including a pregnant woman, seniors and people with disabilities.
During the last six months, at least three mariners living aboard their boats anchored out in Richardson Bay have filed federal lawsuits against the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA) for threatening to seize and destroy their vessels. The basis for the RBRA’s proposed actions is that the boats are marine debris. The boat owners vehemently dispute the claim.
On Jan. 4, hearings for two different cases filed by mariners were held before Judge William H. Orrick in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. While the RBRA retained an outside law firm, the mariners aren’t paying a dime in legal costs. Daniel Knight, who is 65 and disabled, has a pro bono attorney. Robert Roark, 76, is a pro se litigant, meaning he is representing himself.
Both Knight and Roark assert the RBRA, as well as other numerous named and unnamed defendants, are attempting to seize and destroy their boats. Should the RBRA succeed in taking and crushing their homes, the men allege the agency will violate their civil rights and force them into homelessness.
Several constitutional amendments protect Knight and Roark, according to their lawsuits. The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from performing unreasonable searches and seizures, while the Fifth Amendment guarantees the government cannot seize private property without just compensation. The 14th Amendment bars the government from depriving people of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.
Attorney David Breemer, of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization specializing in cases involving constitutional rights, is representing Knight and believes the definition of “reason” will be crucial to the case.
“In a legal search and seizure, generally speaking, a warrant should be obtained—but not always,” Breemer said in an interview with the Pacific Sun. “This is not just a warrant issue. The ultimate issue: What is reasonable? It’s unreasonable to seize property without due process, which is the notice and hearing before they take your property. You can’t give a person 10 days to move out of their residence. And there is no payment for the property offered here.”
Orrick seems to agree with some of Knight’s allegations, as he issued a preliminary injunction against the RBRA, prohibiting the agency from seizing the boat. In addition, he set a trial date for October, indicating he thinks the case has some merit.
Like Knight, Roark also received a 10-day written notice that his boat will be seized. In addition, RBRA Harbormaster Jim Malcolm verbally threatened to take the vessel, Roark said in an interview.
Roark contends he is anchoring out temporarily, until he completes some necessary repairs to his boat. Malcolm provided Roark with an application for a 30-day permit to anchor out in Richardson Bay, but Roark crossed out portions in red. One of Roark’s chief objections is that the permit states the “RBRA harbormaster is authorized to inspect the vessel at any time…”
“Parts of the application are unenforceable as written,” Roark said. “You cannot demand that someone give up their constitutional rights in order to gain a privilege. I’m not going to give away my civil rights for a parking permit.”
The RBRA refuses to negotiate on the terms of the permit and denies that any verbal threat was made to seize Roark’s boat. Orrick has twice declined to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the agency from taking Roark’s vessel; however, he said that the issue will be dealt with through normal litigation. No date has yet been set.
For years, the RBRA has placed 10-day warning notices on anchored-out boats, mostly with the marine debris claim. If the owner doesn’t remove their property from the Richardson Bay anchorage within the stated period, the boat is at risk of being seized and destroyed. The harbormaster frequently follows through on the notice.
The RBRA hires a marine surveyor to determine whether the boat is marine debris; however, critics say the surveyor usually doesn’t enter the vessel and doesn’t test equipment. The anchor-outs say the RBRA has crushed seaworthy vessels.
For example, in July, the RBRA seized a 32-foot sailboat that it declared was marine debris. The boat’s owner, Kaitlin Allerton, a young woman who has lived on the water in Sausalito for most of her life, left her boat to spend the last few months of her pregnancy on shore.
Initially, Federal Judge Maxine Chesney granted the RBRA permission to crush Allerton’s vessel, based on photos showing the boat covered in bird droppings, the surveyor’s report and the harbormaster’s inaccurate descriptions of the boat’s condition. While the RBRA had the boat stored at a marina in San Rafael, a crew of Allerton’s friends cleaned the boat. Chesney, who was presented with new photos, reversed her position. The parties subsequently reached an agreement, which included the RBRA returning the seaworthy vessel to Allerton.
Until recently, the boats were towed to the Army Corps of Engineers’ boat crushing facility in Sausalito. The vessels are now brought to other marinas around the bay to be destroyed, presumably because the boat owners have occasionally taken back their property from the Army Corps of Engineers, under the cover of darkness, and dropped anchor again in Richardson Bay.
However, most seized boats never make it back to the water. In 2010, there were 200 vessels anchored out. Then, in mid-2019, a state regulatory agency, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), pushed the RBRA to make haste with removing the boats. The RBRA responded by declaring more boats marine debris and enforcing a 72-hour limit for anchoring in the bay. The previous harbormaster whittled the number of vessels down to 135 by the end of 2020, despite the pandemic and lockdown. Just two years later, the RBRA estimates about 65 boats remain.
Under pressure from the BCDC, the RBRA signed an agreement in 2021 requiring that all boats anchored out in Richardson Bay must be removed by October 2026. With the anchor-out eradication date approaching, the RBRA continues to seize boats, although there is a severe lack of affordable housing on shore.
The RBRA’s attorney, David V. Roth, of Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, did not reply to the Pacific Sun’s requests for comment.
For some mariners, leaving Richardson Bay represents the death of a lifestyle, their calling to live on the water. Others say they’ve been forced out of the traditional housing market due to run-away costs for real estate in Marin. With no place to go, and more than 1,100 homeless people in Marin County, they fear they will soon be living on the streets.