As part of the Institute for Justice’s 30th Anniversary celebration (1991-2021), our “IJ Works Wonders” series looks back on IJ cases that fundamentally transformed the law and the lives of our clients.
For over 30 years, Russ and Pat Caswell worked tirelessly at their motel in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. With their mortgage paid off, the couple looked forward to wrapping up their career by either passing along the motel (which had been in the family since Russ’s father built it by hand in the 1950s) to their family members or selling the property, which was their entire life savings and 401(k). But the federal government had other plans for the Caswells when they were blindsided by a civil forfeiture suit in 2009.
Civil forfeiture—where the government can take and sell your property without ever charging you with a crime, let alone convicting you of one—is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation. To make matters worse, such forfeitures, including the Caswells’, often fund law enforcement officials’ budgets, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power.
Because it was mortgage-free and not affiliated with any big hotel chain that had the resources to defend itself, the motel became an attractive target for federal and local law enforcement officials who sought to cash in on what the Caswells created. The U.S. Attorney’s office and the Tewksbury Police Department teamed up to forfeit the entire property—worth more than a million dollars—because a tiny fraction of people who stayed at the Motel Caswell during the past 20 years were arrested for drug crimes. (The government identified only 19 arrests of guests staying at the motel over 18 years as the basis of the forfeiture. This represented less than .05 percent of the 125,000 rooms the Caswells rented over that period of time.) The government sought to do this even though the Caswells themselves always cooperated with law enforcement officials to prevent and report crime on their property. If the forfeiture was successful, the revenue from the forced sale of the motel would have been split between federal law enforcement and the Tewksbury Police Department.
The government never alleged the Caswells did anything illegal. But under civil forfeiture, innocent people can lose their property—with no compensation whatsoever—if the government believes it was used to “facilitate a crime.” So, the burden was on the Caswells to prove their innocence rather than on the government to prove their guilt.
The Caswell case represented everything wrong with our draconian civil forfeiture laws and was one of the first cases of IJ’s nationwide initiative against civil forfeiture, which we launched in 2010.
As we’ve done with other issues like eminent domain abuse and occupational licensing, IJ released a landmark study at the start of our initiative to document the breadth and depth of the problem. Our report—Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Forfeiture (which we’ve since followed up with two additional editions)—documented the explosive growth of civil forfeiture at the state and federal level since the 1980s and how forfeiture had become a multibillion dollar a year industry.
After a four-day bench trial in 2012—where IJ squared off against the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston—Russ and IJ earned a stirring slap-down of the government’s actions. The court’s ruling lambasted the federal government’s case as “not supported by a scintilla of evidence” and accused the government of engaging in “gross exaggeration.”
The Caswell decision set an early, important precedent reining in federal forfeiture power. Since that decision, IJ has filed over 30 cases, with many still ongoing, obtained 16 final victories for our clients, and secured the return of over $16 million dollars in assets. Moreover, four states have now completely abolished civil forfeiture while over 30 states have reformed their forfeiture laws in some way.
For Russ and his wife, the ruling, which was not appealed, proved a huge sigh of relief after living with years of stress. Russ said, “We lived with this legal nightmare for almost four years. I can’t express how happy we were to finally have it behind us.”
Russ and his wife, Pat, who suffered serious health issues during the course of the litigation, ultimately decided to sell the motel and finally retire. Because of this decision, though, the proceeds from the sale went to their well-earned retirement rather than to the coffers of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Russ has gone on to speak at conferences across the nation, even testifying before Congress, to tell his story and help inspire an end to the scourge of civil forfeiture once and for all.
Scott Bullock is IJ’s president and general counsel.