Federal Judge Sides With Motel Owners Against Justice Department

Published February 22, 2013

Property owners won a major victory when a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled against the U.S. Justice Department’s attempt to seize a family-owned motel because of 15 drug-related arrests involving lodgers there between 1994 and 2008.

The Justice Department never alleged the hotel’s owners or their employees had anything to do with the incidents. Yet the government tried to use civil forfeiture to take the 56-room Motel Caswell, owned by Russell Caswell 69, and his wife Patricia, 71.

‘Complete Victory for Property Rights’

“This is a complete victory for the Caswell family and for the protection of private property rights,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented the Caswells, in a statement.  “The Caswells will keep their motel, and private property rights are preserved.”

The government tried to take the Motel Caswell under the theory the property facilitated drug crimes. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein wrote in her decision the Caswells “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.”

Judge Dein noted no one in law enforcement tried to help the Caswells reduce drug activity at the motel or warn them about the possibility of civil forfeiture. They knew nothing about forfeiture until the government filed its case.

The case “is easily distinguishable from other cases where the ‘draconian’ result of forfeiture was found to be appropriate,” the judge wrote in her decision.

‘An Outrageous Action’

IJ attorney Larry Salzman called the government’s attempt to seize the Motel Caswell an “outrageous forfeiture action.”

“What the government did amounted to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture,” Salzman said in a statement.

Russell Caswell said after the ruling, “It is hard to believe anything like this goes on in our country, but the government goes after people they think can’t afford to fight. . . The public needs to stand up against these abuses of power.”

According to the IJ, civil forfeiture abuse has become widespread. In 1986, the year after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund was created, it took in $93.7 million. The fund holds civil forfeiture proceeds and then doles out money to state and local police agencies. From 2000 to 2008 civil forfeiture payments to state and local police agencies doubled from $200 million to $400 million a year, says the IJ.

Internet Info

“Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain,” Institute for Justice: http://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/private_property/forfeiture/inequitable_justice-mass-forfeiture.pdf