Feds Decline to Appeal Ruling Striking Down Civil Forfeiture

Published March 26, 2013

In a big win for property rights, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston has announced it will not appeal a federal court ruling that dismissed the government’s attempt to use civil forfeiture to seize 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 sided with the Caswells, declaring federal forfeiture law should not apply to the motel.

In her ruling, Dein wrote the federal government’s case was “not supported by a scintilla of evidence,” and she accused the government of engaging in “gross exaggeration.”

‘Desperate Need of Reform’

“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, which represented the Caswells, in a statement. “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.”

From 1994 to 2008, 15 lodgers at the 56-room Motel Caswell had been involved in drug-related arrests. The government tried to seize the motel under the theory that it was facilitating drug crimes, even though neither the motel’s owners nor their employees were ever accused of being involved in the crimes or even knowing about them.

Judge 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.”

Furthermore, Dein noted, no one told the Caswells of the civil forfeiture threat.

Fight Is Not Over

“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,” said Russell Caswell, who owns the motel with his wife Patricia, in a statement. “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 Institute for Justice notes the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund holds more than $1.6 billion. The fund sends proceeds from properties seized under federal law to law enforcement agencies.

The Institute argues police departments pad their budgets by taking property from innocent owners who have never been convicted or even charged with a crime, as in the case of the Caswells.

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