Arlington, Va.—In a major triumph for property rights, a federal court in Massachusetts dismissed a civil forfeiture action against the Motel Caswell, a family-run motel in Tewksbury, handing a complete victory to owners Russell and Patricia Caswell. In one of the most contentious civil forfeiture fights in the nation, Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts concluded, based on a week-long bench trial in November 2012, that the motel was not subject to forfeiture under federal law and that its owners were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.
The Institute for Justice and local counsel Schlossberg, LLC, brought the case to trial to expose the injustices of civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to pad their budgets by taking property from innocent owners who have never been convicted or even charged with a crime.
“This is a complete victory for the Caswell family and for the protection of private property rights,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “The Caswells will keep their motel, and private property rights are preserved.”
The government had sought to take the Motel Caswell from the Caswell family under the theory that the motel allegedly facilitated drug crimes. But the court found that Mr. Caswell “did not know the guests involved in the drug crimes, did not know of their anticipated criminal behavior at the time they registered as guests, and did not know of the drug crimes while they were occurring.”
“This outrageous forfeiture action should never have been filed in the first place,” said Larry Salzman, an IJ attorney. “What the government did amounted to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture.”
Caswell said, “I couldn’t have fought this fight without the help of the Institute for Justice. It is hard to believe anything like this goes on in our country, but the government goes after people they think can’t afford to fight. But with IJ’s help, we put up a heck of a fight and have won. The public needs to stand up against these abuses of power.”
The Problem of civil forfeiture is widespread. In 1986, the year after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund was created—the fund that holds the forfeiture proceeds from properties forfeited under federal law and available to be paid out to law enforcement agencies—it took in just $93.7 million. Today, it holds more than $1.6 billion. An Institute for Justice report, Inequitable Justice: How Federal “Equitable Sharing” Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain, documents how the problem is growing worse. Between 2000 and 2008, equitable sharing payments from the U.S. Department of Justice to state and local law enforcement doubled from about $200 million to $400 million per year.
“Civil forfeiture is a draconian power that is too easily abused,” said Darpana Sheth, an IJ attorney. “This case epitomizes what an aggressive U.S. attorney wielding these laws can do to a small property owner like Russ Caswell.”
IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor said: “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that civil forfeiture invites a lack of accountability, a lack of due process and a lack of restraints on government authority. Civil forfeiture needs to end. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict that person of a crime. Short of that, you will end up with what the federal government tried to do in Tewksbury.”
John E. Kramer