Civil Forfeiture Abuse Case to be Argued

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 10, 2012

Arlington, Va.—One of the nation’s most important legal challenges to government’s abuse of civil forfeiture laws—where the government can take someone’s property without so much as accusing them of a crime, let alone convicting them of one—will be argued today (Monday, February 13, 2012) at 3:30 p.m. in Boston at the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Way. The case of Tewksbury, Mass., motel owner Russ Caswell and his wife will be argued before Chief Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein in Courtroom 15.

The civil forfeiture action against Caswell exemplifies the worst abuses of civil forfeiture nationwide, where individuals don’t have to be convicted of a crime to lose what is rightfully theirs, and where law enforcement departments have a direct financial incentive to abuse their power. Caswell is asking the court to have the U.S. Department of Justice’s action against his family dismissed.

“This outrageous forfeiture action should never have been filed in the first place,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit public interest law firm that represents the Caswell family. “What the government is doing amounts to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of forfeiture. The Caswells have suffered for too long living under the cloud of forfeiture abuse and hopefully this motion will end their ordeal right now.”

Russ and his family have owned and operated the Motel Caswell for two generations. The motel, which Russ’ father built in 1955 and that the Caswells now own free and clear, was supposed to provide a steady income for his family and to fund Russ and his wife’s retirement. But now, the Caswells may have their motel, worth more than one million dollars, taken from them by local and federal law enforcement officials through a process known as “civil forfeiture.”

If law enforcement officials succeed, the Caswells would end up with nothing and the law enforcement agencies would split the bounty through a process called “equitable sharing” in which the local agency would get 80 percent of the proceeds and the federal government would keep the rest. This money could be used to pad the budgets of the police department, thus giving it a direct financial incentive not to pursue justice, but rather to “police for profit,” which is exactly what is going on in the Caswell case.

Equitable sharing allows officials to circumvent Massachusetts state law, which is more protective of property owners like the Caswells, and to use the more lenient (and more profitable) federal law. The federal government bases its forfeiture complaint on the fact that a tiny fraction of people who have stayed at the Motel Caswell during the past 20 years have been arrested for crimes. The Caswells themselves have never been even accused of a crime let alone convicted of one.

The summary judgment motion being argued today asks the court to hold that the equitable sharing program of the federal government violates the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which protects states and citizens from overreaching on the part of the federal government. Because the forfeiture of the Motel Caswell would destroy Russ’ livelihood, the motion also asks the court to hold that it would violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines.”