Massachusetts Civil Forfeiture - Clip: 5-30-2012

Tewksbury Town Crier

This piece appeared in response to an opinion piece in the Tewksbury Town Crier


Setting the Record Straight at the Motel Caswell


Larry Salzman, Attorney, Institute for Justice

Your recent article criticizing George Will (“What About the Facts, George?”, May 25, 2012) as ignorant for denouncing the unjust asset forfeiture case against the Motel Caswell is totally off-base.

It is important to point out that the Caswells have never been accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Taking property, let alone an entire livelihood, away from someone who has never committed any criminal wrong-doing is fundamentally wrong and un-American.

You find it “offensive” that Mr. Will accuses federal officials of, in your words, “troll[ing] public records for property” to seize. Yet that fact comes directly from the DEA agent who began the forfeiture action against the Motel Caswell. Special Agent Vincent Kelly stated frankly during depositions that his position at the DEA consisted “primarily [of] just mainly looking for properties to be forfeited”—properties he found by reading newspapers and searching on the internet. Likewise, you “laugh out loud” at Mr. Will’s report that there have been about 30 drug-dealing crimes at the motel during the past 18 years, taking him to task for not reviewing publicly available police reports.

I have read not only every publicly available police report but many more that were received through discovery in this case. It is true, as you report, that there are other incidents at the motel over the years of all types, including calls to break up parties prohibited by the motel’s rules, end domestic fights, or evict lawbreakers—but how many of the serious class of crimes that could potentially be relevant to a forfeiture action under federal law? About 30 in almost 20 years. If you look harder at those police reports, you will find a similar number of incidents at several other motels in the neighborhood, not to mention the Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lots. What that says to me is not that the Caswells ignore crime that has occurred on their property, but that the neighborhood is beset by crime and even the most conscientious property owners can’t stop some of it from bleeding on to their property at times.

You write that Russ and Pat Caswell run a property “so poorly operated” that a “meth lab” in one of the motel’s rooms escaped their notice. Let’s be clear about the actual facts. This “meth lab,” which existed for hardly a weekend, consisted of a hot plate, a handful of empty glass jars and soda bottles and rubber tubing, all of which could be concealed and snuck into a room in a small file box. According to their depositions, even the police who initially inspected the room did not know that the materials constituted a “meth lab” until a drug enforcement specialist arrived. Once discovered, the Caswells immediately addressed the problem. You quote the former Tewksbury Police Chief that the Caswells “do nothing” to prevent crime at their property but that statement is absolutely false. They have installed signs and cameras. They take down IDs and license plates of all guests. They keep a do not rent list of any known troublemakers. They do all that the law asks of them and more and, in fact, no one from the government—until the day the United States served notice to take their entire property—has ever asked them to do more than they have done or threatened the loss of their property.

Civil asset forfeiture treats innocent property owners worse than criminals. Criminals must be proven guilty before their property is taken, but once the government targets a property for civil forfeiture, the owner must prove his property innocent. This turns the American idea that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty on its head and it is wrong. If the city believed the Caswells were not innocent, they could have charged them long ago. If they believed they operated the property in an unsafe manner, they could have refused business permits, health and safety permits, or ordered them to do more than they were doing to assist police in stopping crime. Neither the local nor federal government did any of this, yet they seek to punish the Caswells by taking their entire property and livelihood—only to sell it and split the proceeds among themselves. Those are the facts and they are every bit as outrageous as George Will reports and more.

Mr. Salzman represents the Caswell family in their case to stop the civil forfeiture of their Motel Caswell.

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