Why I’m Fighting Civil Forfeiture

January 29, 2013

The last thing I thought I would be doing as I approach my seventies is fighting the federal government to save my family-owned business, the Motel Caswell, in Tewksbury, Mass. But after my local police department teamed up with the U.S. Attorney more than three years ago, that is exactly what I have had to do to keep everything my family has worked for during the past 50 years.

I am 69 years old and my wife, Pat, is 71. My father built the Motel Caswell in 1955 when I was a boy. I eventually bought the motel from him in 1984 and I have run it ever since then. My two children work for the motel, and Pat, my 91-year old mother-in-law, my son, his wife, and my nine-year-old granddaughter and I live right next door. It is a true mom-and-pop operation.

The Motel Caswell is a budget motel. The people who stay here are of modest means. We still have travelers staying with us, but we also have construction crews that need an affordable place to stay while on a job for a few weeks. We have retired folks and military veterans who stay here on a monthly basis. Other people lost their homes or apartments, or just don’t have any other place to go. We rent approximately 14,000 room nights each year.

Not surprisingly, given the number of rooms we rent and the variety of people who stay here, we get a small number of folks who cause problems, including those who use drugs. But they do this behind closed doors without our knowing. Whenever we see anything suspicious, we report it to the police, and when the police come to us with information about people staying at the motel, we always cooperate with them fully. We even provide police with free rooms upon request to do surveillance and undercover work.

That is why I was shocked to get in the mail in September 2009 a notice that the government was taking my property through civil forfeiture. The police never once came to me and said they had a problem with the motel. The town renewed my innkeeper’s license every year. I paid my taxes and I never had a run-in with the law my entire life.

Frankly, I couldn’t believe this was happening in America. How could the government take away my business and my land when I have done nothing wrong?

I tried to find out more information about civil forfeiture. I got in touch with a family friend who is a business lawyer and his firm, Schlossberg LLC of Braintree, Mass., agreed to represent me at a reduced rate. They did a good job and I was thankful for the help, but I was already spending tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully, the Institute for Justice heard about my case and agreed to step in and represent our family free of charge. If IJ had not been there for us, there is no way we could have afforded to fight this.

We had our trial in federal court in Boston in early November last year and we await the judge’s decision. I am hopeful for a good outcome. As I sat there in the courtroom during the four-day trial, I was as stunned by the arguments the government was making about its ability to take property from innocent people as I was when I first learned about civil forfeiture over three years ago. I am fighting this battle not only to save my motel but also to highlight the unbelievable injustice of civil forfeiture laws. My hope is that younger people will not have to live through what our family has had to endure.

Russ Caswell is the owner and operator of the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass.  He and IJ are challenging civil forfeiture.

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