IJ Scores Major Federal Court Victory Against Civil Forfeiture

In one of the most important and contentious civil forfeiture fights in the nation, a federal judge in January dismissed the forfeiture complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney against the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass. After a four-day trial in November, Judge Judith G. Dein concluded in a 60-page opinion that the Motel Caswell was not subject to forfeiture and that its owners, the Caswell family, were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.

Incredibly, at that trial, the only thing the government was able to show was that, over the course of two decades, a small number of the motel’s guests or their visitors surreptitiously engaged in drug activities, unseen and unknown to the Caswells. Of course, drug crimes occasionally happen just about anywhere, from the most luxurious of hotels to budget places like the Motel Caswell, from college dorms to the parking lots of big-box retail stores.

Faced with these undeniable facts, the federal government urged the court to adopt a radically expansive theory of forfeiture under which a single drug transaction committed by anyone on the property of an establishment subjects that property to forfeiture—seizure by the government—regardless of the owner’s lack of involvement or even prior knowledge of the drug crime. Accepting the government’s theory would subject to forfeiture countless establishments that serve the public, such as motels, restaurants and corner stores, simply because they are the site of occasional drug crime.

Thankfully, the judge did not buy any of this. In its opinion, the court lambasted the federal government’s case as “not supported by a scintilla of evidence” and accused the government of engaging in “gross exaggeration.”

In addition to rejecting the government’s dangerous notions of forfeiture law, Judge Dein also showed respect for Russ Caswell and his family. She described the Caswells’ home, next door to the motel, which the judge saw during a site-visit during the trial, as “modest, well-maintained, nicely-furnished and decorated and apparently the gathering spot of a close-knit family.” She also noted that it “is undisputed that [the Caswells] are a law-abiding family.” The judge was also clearly offended by what she described as “highly derogatory” comments by the U.S. Attorneys in the case about Mr. Caswell and his family.

Indeed, the Caswells were put through the wringer by the federal government for over three years. Before this decision was handed down, they stood to lose their entire property and retirement savings and be left with nothing.

IJ got involved in this case to expose the injustices of civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to pad their budgets by taking property from owners who have never been convicted or even charged with any crime. As this issue of Liberty & Law was going to print, we received word that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston will not appeal Judge Dein’s decision, so the case is over and the Caswells’ victory is final. The decision in this case is a significant victory for property rights, the rule of law and a hard-working, law-abiding family bullied by the federal government. IJ’s work in this area, however, is not done. We will continue to fight for the rights of other property owners until the injustice of civil forfeiture is once and for all ended.

Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.

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