The Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass., won’t be found on any world’s best hotel lists, but it has become a five-star example of the need for Congress to enact comprehensive civil asset-forfeiture reform.
The motel, a mortgage-free property worth more than $1 million, has been owned and operated by the Caswell family for over two generations. According to government prosecutors, some guests at the hotel have used rooms at the inn to engage in minor, drug-related crimes, leading to 15 arrests in the past 15 years. There has never been any allegation that a member of the Caswell family has ever been involved in this or any other criminal activity. The owners always cooperated with police, even offering free rooms to law enforcement conducting stakeouts whenever requested. Federal agents repaid that generosity by attempting to seize the hotel from the family and sell it to the highest bidder.
Such madness is commonplace under federal civil asset-forfeiture rules that turn law enforcement into a for-profit enterprise. The statute enables the taking of any property without compensation unless the owners can prove that they “did all that could reasonably be expected” to end illegal activity on their land. The concept of innocent until proven guilty does not apply. Property can be taken on the mere suspicion of a connection to a crime, and the burden of proof falls on the owner, not the government.
Local communities also get a chance to take a cut of this lucrative racket. Through the doctrine of “equitable sharing,” cities and towns that trigger federal forfeiture are entitled to 80 percent of the money raised from the seizure. Cash-strapped localities often pursue civil forfeiture to close budget deficits. It’s a win-win for government and a lose-lose for innocent bystanders and the Constitution.
The Caswell family found itself caught in the vortex of these perverse incentives when the Tewksbury Police Department went to the feds to take and sell the Motel Caswell because a handful of those who stayed at the motel were involved in shady dealings.
Thanks to the assistance of the Institute for Justice, the Caswells have kept the government at bay. On Jan. 24, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein slapped down the case brought by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz — the same individual whose aggressive prosecution of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was blamed for his suicide. Judge Dein spent 59 pages picking apart the flimsy evidence prosecutors put forward in the case, but Ms. Ortiz is nonetheless considering an appeal.
It is time for Congress to end this reign of error for the Caswells and the thousands of other innocent families who have seen their property taken and lives destroyed by current asset-forfeiture laws. The government shouldn’t be allowed to grab homes and destroy livelihoods on the mere allegation of a possible connection to illegal activity. At a minimum, lawmakers must demand a guilty verdict in a criminal trial prior to any seizure.
The Washington Times