By Scott Bullock and Larry Salzman
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 often fund law enforcement officials’ budgets, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power. Perhaps nowhere is this abuse more evident than in the case IJ just took on in Tewksbury, Mass.
There, the federal government has teamed up with the local police department to file a forfeiture action against the Motel Caswell, located on Main Street in Tewksbury (about 30 miles outside Boston). The motel was built in 1955 and is owned by Russ and Pat Caswell. Russ watched his father build the motel when he was a boy, and he has been involved in the operation and eventual ownership of it for most of his life. For decades, it prospered as reasonably priced overnight accommodations for families on road trips and truckers traveling on the newly built interstate highway system.
Over the years, as travelling patterns changed and truckers began sleeping in their rigs, the Motel Caswell faced the same decline as many motels and readjusted to become budget accommodations that still served travelers, but also lower-income folks who needed a place to stay. The Motel Caswell is not the Ritz, but it provides affordable housing without government subsidies. Meanwhile, Tewksbury, like many communities, has had problems with drug activity and crime and unfortunately those problems occasionally bleed over to the motel.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Tewksbury police department now demand that the Caswells forfeit their entire property—worth more than a million dollars—because a tiny fraction of people who have stayed at the motel during the past 20 years have been arrested for crimes. The arrests the government complains of represent less than .05 percent of the 125,000 rooms the Caswells have rented over that same period of time. In fact, the government’s lawsuit identifies only five drug incidents leading to approximately 10 arrests between 2001 and 2009 as the basis of the forfeiture.
Incredibly, the government does not allege that the Caswells themselves have done anything illegal. Indeed, they have no criminal record whatsoever and even the police admit that the Caswells have always cooperated with them to prevent and report crime on their property. But under civil forfeiture laws, innocent people can still lose their property—with no compensation whatsoever—if the government believes it was used to “facilitate” a crime.
Along with taking on the Caswell case, IJ also released a new report titled, Inequitable Justice: How Federal “Equitable Sharing” Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain, which examines a federal law enforcement practice known as “equitable sharing.” This program, which the government is using against the Motel Caswell, enables—indeed, encourages—state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.
IJ will stop this outrageous abuse of power and save the Motel Caswell. We will also put much needed limits on government’s forfeiture power under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney and Larry Salzman is an IJ staff attorney.