Arlington, Va.—A federal lawsuit out of Massachusetts challenging the government’s abuse of civil forfeiture laws—laws that allow the government to take private property without convicting or even accusing the property owner of a crime—will go to trial before the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts later this year. No date for the proceeding has been set, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein yesterday denied on procedural grounds a motion by motel owner Russ Caswell of Tewksbury, Mass., to have the federal case dismissed, clearing the way for a full trial.
“The Caswells are innocent of any wrongdoing and for 30 years have done their best to maintain a crime-free and safe budget motel,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit public interest law firm that represents the Caswell family. “This case shows all that is wrong with civil forfeiture and we look forward to demonstrating that at trial.”
The federal government wants to seize the Motel Caswell, owned and operated for the past 30 years by Russ Caswell and his wife, because a tiny fraction (.05 percent) of the people who stayed at the motel between 2001 and 2008 were arrested for drug crimes on the property. Local and state authorities who investigated those crimes have never accused the Caswells of any wrongdoing.
If the government succeeds in taking the Caswell’s business from them, the bounty from the forfeiture would be split among the very law enforcement agencies attempting to take the property through a program called “equitable sharing,” in which the local agency would get 80 percent of the proceeds and the federal government would keep the rest; the Caswells, who have worked their entire adult lives to build and grow this business and who are relying on this business for their retirement, would end up with nothing. This money could be used to pad the budget 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. The civil forfeiture action against Caswell family is one of the most outrageous demonstrations of the abuse of forfeiture nationwide.
“Civil forfeiture treats innocent property owners like the Caswells worse than criminals,” said Larry Salzman, an IJ attorney on the case. “Criminals must be proven guilty before their property is taken, but once the government targets a property for forfeiture an owner must prove himself innocent to get it back: This turns the American idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty on its head and is one of the main perversions of the legal system we’re fighting against in this case.”
The Motel Caswell was built by Russ’s father in 1955 and has been operated by two generations of the Caswell family. The property is now owned free and clear, which is one of the reasons it is such an attractive target for the taking; anything the government gets after the forfeiture would be pure profit.