Motel Nix

Published October 30, 2011

Once every four years in the past 20 years, persons staying at a family-owned motel in Massachusetts have been arrested for one kind of crime or another. This is 0.05 percent of the persons who stayed there. Only ten arrests were made. Nevertheless, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the police department in Tewksbury, Massachusetts are suing to take title to the property because they allege it “facilitates a crime.”

The Caswell family has owned the motel since 1955. The government and police don’t allege the owners have done anything wrong. In fact, they concede the owners have done everything possible to call the police when they’ve learned of illegal activity and have fully cooperated with them. They have installed security cameras and have copied guests’ identification and auto license plates and routinely provide this to police for their review.

The government suit is filed under civil forfeiture laws against the property, not the owners. If the government plaintiffs prevail, they will acquire the property, worth about a million dollars. Up to 80 percent of the money can go to the Tewksburg police department’s budget, with the balance going to the DEA.

The owners are being defended by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, which authored a 2010 study called Policing for Profit. IJ says this is just one example of an unjust law being used for profit by government. Use of federal forfeiture law has “exploded,” IJ says. The federal forfeiture fund now holds $1.6 billion.

The motel owners will have to prove their innocence, an abusive and difficult reversal of the burden of proof. If the owners had been charged with a crime, the government would have to prove their guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Civil forfeiture–where the government can take and sell your property without ever charging you with a crime, let alone convicting you of one–is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation,” according to IJ.

Source: “Federal & Local Law Enforcement Agencies Try to Take Family Motel from Innocent Owners,” Institute for Justice, undated, accessed on October 16, 2011, via Jacob Sullum, “Welcome to the Upside-Down World of Civil Forfeiture,” Reason, October 6, 2011