The Caswells have been in the motel business since the 50’s when Russ Caswell’s father first built the motel in Massachusetts. Russ and his wife are now getting up in years and thinking about retirement. Their motel property is worth about $1 million, and they have no mortgage on it, so they’ve been able to work through the years and save up their money.
Now, they’re in trouble with the Feds. Technically, the Caswells aren’t, but their property is. The Caswells have no criminal history whatsoever, but because there has been drug use in their motels rooms over the past 20 years, the Feds and police are attempting to confiscate their property under civil forfeiture laws. Both the Feds and police stand to gain financially from this seizure. If the court approves the confiscation, the Feds would keep 20% of the proceeds after they sell it, and the local police would keep the remaining 80%. They call this “equitable sharing.” Yep, they can just do that.
The idea behind asset forfeiture is if someone was using a piece of property to carry out a crime, that piece of property is subject to seizure. For example, law enforcement could seize a car that was used to transport illegal drugs, sell it and keep the proceeds. I was behind a cop SUV not too long ago that had a bumper sticker on the back that read: “This car paid for with drug money.” The drug money was seized under asset forfeiture.
What motel hasn’t been the meeting place for illicit drug use and sex? That is not the fault of the motel owner. The difference is that their motel property is completely paid for and fully owned by the Caswells. The Feds and police are simply looking at the property as a possible Christmas bonus, and they’re just using civil forfeiture laws as the cover.
Their week-long trial will begin November 5th in Boston. The Caswells didn’t have the resources to fight the case, so they were expecting to just lose everything. Thankfully, the Institute for Justice has taken on their case and will be fighting for them against the State’s attempted theft of the Caswell’s private property. The attorneys commented on the case:
“‘The Caswell case epitomizes everything that is wrong with our nation’s civil forfeiture laws,’ said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. ‘People who are never even charged let alone convicted of criminal wrongdoing can face the loss of their homes, cars, cash, or, like with the Caswells, their entire business and livelihood.’”
“‘This outrageous forfeiture action should never have been filed in the first place,’ said Larry Salzman, an IJ attorney. ‘What the government is doing amounts to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture. Our goal in this case is to not only spotlight the inevitable abuse that transpires when law enforcement agencies are allowed to use civil forfeiture, but to set a precedent that will end this nightmare for the Caswells and stop an abuse of power that has ruined the lives of too many innocent Americans.’”
Next week, keep an eye on this case to see how the court rules. Civil forfeiture is just one of many ways our government can steal private property. Let’s hope that the Institute for Justice brings justice to the Caswells.