This motel is under arrest

Civil forfeiture is the government power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. In criminal forfeiture, property is seized after a conviction. In civil actions, however, police can seize property without so much as charging the owner with wrongdoing.

This legal sleight-of-hand is common but not well-understood. The government actually sues the property itself. That’s why civil forfeiture cases have unusual names, like United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts – an actual case involving a Massachusetts motel.

Motel Caswell is a family-owned budget motel in Tewksbury, Mass. Russ and Patricia Caswell have owned and operated the motel for nearly 30 years. The Caswells expected the motel, now mortgage-free, to provide their retirement.

But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Tewksbury police had other plans. They went to court to seize the entire property – worth $1 million – because some guests have been arrested with drugs.

Since 1994, the Caswells have rented their rooms more than 125,000 times. But because drug arrests have taken place on roughly 30 occasions over those 18 years, the drug police asked the court for the keys. And the federal government planned to turn over as much as 80 percent of the take directly to Tewksbury police, while federal drug cops would get the rest. Furthermore, because the Caswells had no rights as “defendants,” the onus was on them to go to court to challenge the seizure.

But now a pleasant surprise. In a major triumph for property rights, a federal court in Massachusetts this week dismissed the civil forfeiture action.

Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein of the U.S. District Court concluded the motel was not subject to forfeiture because – surprise – its owners were innocent of any wrongdoing.

“This court finds it significant that neither Mr. Caswell, nor anyone in his family, nor anyone over whose behavior he had any control, was involved in any of the drug-related incidents,” wrote Judge Dein. “There was no reason for Mr. Caswell to suspect that every guest, or even a particular guest, who was coming to the Motel would engage in illegal behavior. … Courts do not expect the common land owner to eradicate a problem which our able law enforcement organizations cannot control.”

Of course, the Caswells managed to win only because someone stepped forward to finance their fight.

“I couldn’t have fought this fight without the help of the Institute for Justice,” the Washington-based public interest law firm that went to bat for the family, Mr. Caswell says. “It is hard to believe anything like this goes on in our country. … The public needs to stand up against these abuses of power.”

Forfeiture reform is desperately needed. “Property” doesn’t commit felonies, and Americans shouldn’t be at risk of losing their hard-earned assets except as duly specified punishment for crimes of which they’ve actually been convicted.

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