Massachusetts Civil Forfeiture
United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. (The Motel Caswell)
Federal & Local Law Enforcement Agencies Try to Take Family Motel from Innocent Owners
IJ client Russ Caswell and his family have owned and operated the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass., for two generations. The Caswells nearly had their property taken from them by local and federal law enforcement officials through a process known as “civil forfeiture."
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Imagine you own a million-dollar piece of property free and clear, but then the federal government and local law enforcement agents announce that they are going to take it from you, not compensate you one dime, and then use the money they get from selling your land to pad their budgets—all this even though you have never so much as been accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.
That is the nightmare Russ Caswell and his family faced in Tewksbury, Mass., where the the federal government tried to take the family-operated motel they have owned for two generations.
Seeking to circumvent state law and cash in on the profits, the Tewksbury Police Department teamed up with the United States Department of Justice to take and sell the Caswell’s property because a tiny fraction of people staying there during the past 14 years were arrested for drug crimes. Keep in mind, the Caswells themselves have worked closely with law enforcement officials to prevent and report crime on their property. And during those 14 years, the government pointed to a mere fifteen arrests—out of more than 200,000 rooms rented during that time by the Caswells.
Despite all this, the Caswells could have lost literally everything they had worked for because of this effort by federal and local law enforcement officials not to pursue justice, but rather to police for profit.
The Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm that fights civil forfeiture abuse nationwide, represented the Caswells in defense of their property and their constitutional rights. After a four-day trial, on January 24, 2013, a federal judge in Boston dismissed the forfeiture action against them ruling that the government engaged in “gross exaggeration” of the evidence and did not have authority to forfeit the property. The judge also held that the Caswells were themselves innocent owners of the property that took all reasonable actions to prevent crime on their property.
The U.S. Attorney’s office later announced that it would not appeal Judge Judith Dein’s decision so the Caswells’ victory is now final. The decision is a significant win for property rights, the rule of law, and a hard-working, law-abiding family bullied by the federal government.