EDITORIAL: Government land grab put to bed

Family beats feds in attempted civil forfeiture of motel

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

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

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus
TWT Video Picks
You Might Also Like
  • Maureen McDonnell looks on as her husband, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, made a statement on Tuesday after the couple was indicted on corruption charges. (associated press)

    PRUDEN: Where have the big-time grifters gone?

  • This photo taken Jan. 9, 2014,  shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gesturing as he answers a question during a news conference  at the Statehouse in Trenton.  Christie will propose extending the public school calendar and lengthening the school day in a speech he hopes will help him rebound from an apparent political payback scheme orchestrated by key aides. The early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will make a case Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014, that children who spend more time in school graduate better prepared academically, according to excerpts of his State of the State address obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    BRUCE: Bombastic arrogance or humble determination? Chris Christie’s choice

  • ** FILE ** Secretary of State Hillary Rodham testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

    PRUDEN: The question to haunt the West

  • Get Breaking Alerts