- - Sunday, February 9, 2014

The government sued my motel. Not me — my motel.

It sounds like something from a far-off banana republic, but it happened to me in Tewksbury, Mass.

I’m the proud owner of the Motel Caswell. My father built the motel back in 1955. It’s been in the family ever since. I have been running the place for 30 years. It’s a budget motel and my wife and I do our best to keep it in good condition.

I’ve never been charged with any crime in my whole life. As I learned firsthand, though, under what’s known as “civil forfeiture,” the government has the power to seize property if it’s linked to a crime — even if the owners are completely innocent.

Even worse, I had to prove my innocence in court. For civil forfeiture, innocent owners like me are actually treated worse than criminals. Nobody — not the local police, Tewksbury officials or the feds — warned me my property could be in danger of forfeiture.

In these types of cases, the government sues the property, not the owner. My case had the bizarre name of United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass.

I’m proud of my business and I do everything I can to keep my guests safe. I’ve installed cameras, keep a “do-not-rent” list at the front desk, regularly check IDs and license plates and keep the property well-lit. I’ve even given free rooms to the police so they can hold stakeouts and bust the bad guys.

Despite all that, the government still wanted to seize my motel because they claimed it was “facilitating” drug crimes. Over a 14-year period, I rented out rooms almost 200,000 guests.

The government only offered as evidence 15 drug arrests. Not 15,000 or 1,500 — just 15. A local paper found big-box stores down the road had more drug activity than my motel.

Not only could the government threaten to take my property, they could pocket the proceeds for themselves. Under a program called “equitable sharing,” the police in my hometown teamed up with federal agents to seize my motel.

If they won in court, the Tewksbury Police Department would have earned 80 percent of what my motel is worth, or more than $1 million.

Since there’s no mortgage on my property and I’m not a big corporation, the Motel Caswell became a tempting target to police for profit. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent even testified it was his job to scour the register of deeds, looking for properties to seize.

Fortunately, the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, learned about my case and took it free of charge. By the time they took the case pro bono, fighting the feds had cost me and my family about $100,000 in legal bills.

Last month, a federal judge ruled against the government and stopped the forfeiture. Motel Caswell will stay with the Caswells. Other victims of civil forfeiture aren’t so lucky, though.

To make sure no American will have to go through what I had to, now I’m working to reform America’s forfeiture laws. I’m calling on Congress to end equitable sharing. This program allows the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to split the civil forfeiture bounty.

This clearly creates an incentive for abuse. To make sure people and their property are presumed innocent, lawmakers also need to shift the burden of proof onto the government for forfeiture proceedings, like they already do for criminal cases. Civil forfeiture is completely un-American and goes against the Constitution. Congress needs to end this abuse of power.

Russ Caswell is the owner of the Motel Caswell and an advocate for forfeiture reform.

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