Federal Government Won’t Appeal Massachusetts Civil Forfeiture Case

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 15, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Putting to rest the most contentious civil forfeiture fight in the nation, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston today announced it will not appeal a federal court’s decision that dismissed the civil forfeiture action filed against the Motel Caswell, a family-run motel in Tewksbury, Mass. In January, Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts concluded that the motel was not subject to forfeiture under federal law and that its owners were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.

Download the federal court ruling (pdf).

“The Caswell family has been put through the wringer by the federal government for over three years, and we are thrilled that this law-abiding family is now finally safe from civil forfeiture,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “The Caswells stood to lose everything for which they had worked so hard. This case epitomizes everything that is wrong with civil forfeiture laws and why they are in such desperate need of reform. We will build off of this victory in future cases to once and for all end civil forfeiture and the inevitable abuses that surround it.”

The government had sought to take the Motel Caswell from the Caswell family under the theory that the motel allegedly facilitated drug crimes. But, in her opinion, Judge Dein found that Mr. Caswell “did not know the guests involved in the drug crimes, did not know of their anticipated criminal behavior at the time they registered as guests, and did not know of the drug crimes while they were occurring.”

In her opinion, the court also lambasted the federal government’s case as “not supported by a scintilla of evidence” and accused the government of engaging in “gross exaggeration.”

“The district court decision will stand as important precedent for the protection of property rights and rights of innocent owners swept up in the civil forfeiture system,” said Larry Salzman, an IJ attorney. “What the government tried to do in this case amounted to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture.”

Russ Caswell said, “We have been living with this legal nightmare for almost four years, and I can’t express how happy we are that this is finally behind us. But my fight against civil forfeiture is not over. I will continue to speak out against this unbelievable power. I will work to see that no other American has to go through what our family did.”

The problem of civil forfeiture is widespread. In 1986, the year after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund was created—the fund that holds the forfeiture proceeds from properties forfeited under federal law and available to be paid out to law enforcement agencies—it took in just $93.7 million. Today, it holds more than $1.6 billion. An Institute for Justice report, Inequitable Justice: How Federal “Equitable Sharing” Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain, documents how the problem is growing worse. Between 2000 and 2008, equitable sharing payments from the U.S. Department of Justice to state and local law enforcement doubled from about $200 million to $400 million per year.

The Institute for Justice and local counsel Schlossberg, LLC, took on the Caswell case to expose the injustice of civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to pad their budgets by taking property from innocent owners who have never been convicted or even charged with a crime. The fight against civil forfeiture by IJ will continue through other litigation, legislation, activism, media outreach and strategic research.

“Civil forfeiture is a draconian power that is too easily abused,” said Darpana Sheth, an IJ attorney. “This case should serve as a cautionary tale of what can happen when an aggressive U.S. attorney wielding these laws goes after a small property owner like Russ Caswell.”

IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor said, “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that civil forfeiture invites a lack of accountability, a lack of due process and a lack of restraints on government authority. Civil forfeiture needs to end. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict that person of a crime. Short of that, you will keep ending up with what the federal government tried to do to the Caswells.”