Drug Dealing and Legal Stealing

The feds try to take a family-owned motel because some of its guests behaved badly.

At the Cosmopolitan, a luxury hotel and casino in Las Vegas, "just the right amount of wrong" is the naughty fun you get for $200 a night. At the $57-a-night Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, just the right amount of wrong is what the federal government says it needs to take the business from the family that has operated it for 57 years.

That amount, it turns out, is tiny. During a recent trial before a U.S. magistrate judge in Boston, a federal prosecutor cited one heroin overdose and 14 incidents in which guests or visitors were arrested for drug crimes at the motel from 1994 through 2008—a minuscule percentage of the 200,000 or so room rentals during that period—to show the business is a "dangerous property" ripe for seizure.

As Russell Caswell, the motel's 69-year-old owner, explained to the Associated Press, "They are holding me responsible for the actions of a few people who I don't know and I've never met before, people who rent a room." Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of civil forfeiture, where property can be guilty even when its owner is innocent.

Under federal law, property used to "facilitate" a drug crime is subject to forfeiture. In 2000 Congress added a safeguard aimed at preventing exactly the sort of injustice Caswell faces: An owner can stop a forfeiture if he shows, by "a preponderance of the evidence," that he did not know about the illegal activity or that, once he discovered it, he "did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property." 

Caswell, whose father built the motel in 1955, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and the local Motel 6, Fairfield Inn, Walmart, and Home Depot have had similar problems with drug activity. But the government argues that Caswell was "willfully blind" to drug dealing and could have done more to prevent it. 

Caswell, who has been running the motel since 1983, says he has no way of knowing what his customers are doing behind closed doors. He has always cooperated with the police, calling them to report suspicious activity and offering them free rooms for surveillance and sting operations.

In 2009 he got his reward: a forfeiture notice. Police had never suggested additional steps he could take to discourage crime or warned him that the motel—which supports him, his mother, his wife, their son, their daughter-in-law, and their granddaughter—could be at risk.

This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration who said he read about the Motel Caswell in a news report and found that the property, which the Caswells own free and clear, had an assessed value of $1.3 million. So Kelley approached the Tewksbury Police Department with an "equitable sharing" deal: The feds would seize the property and sell it, and the cops would get up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Under Massachusetts law, by contrast, police would have received only half the loot, and forfeiture may have been harder. State law says a seized property has to be used not just to "facilitate" a drug crime but "in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances," which suggests a stronger connection.

The Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing the Caswells, argues that the federal "equitable sharing" program helps police evade state laws aimed at preventing forfeiture abuses. A 2011 study reported in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the stricter a state's forfeiture law, the more likely police are to enlist federal help.

Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, says taking away the Caswells' livelihood and retirement security sends an "important deterrent message" to "others who may turn a blind eye to crime occurring at their place of business." But to anyone troubled by the guilty-until-proven-innocent rules of civil forfeiture, it looks a lot like legalized larceny.

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  • WTF||

    "They are holding me responsible for the actions of a few people who I don't know and I've never met before, people who rent a room."

    "Fuck you, that's why."

  • Rhywun||

    Why would anyone be crazy enough to start a business?

  • Mr Whipple||

    'Cause we don't want to work on the gubmint farms?

  • Oso Politico||

    Depressing, and no end in sight...

  • ||

    I am printing this one out and taking it to my buddy who owns a Days Inn. He will love it.

    Why should we expect anything different? The ranks of govt workers is rife with people who have the nature of thugs and thieves. Give 'em power and this is what you get; thievery.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    This is the price we pay for civilization.

  • dinkster||

    I know its snark but it still makes me hurt inside.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    If one overdose is all it takes, why wasn't Chateau Marmont seized when Belushi did his famous exit?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Maybe we need a camera in every hotel room.

  • Mr Whipple||

    Why do the Feds give a fuck about this shithole motel?

  • ||

    Why do the Feds give a fuck about this shithole motel?

    They give a fuck about the $1.3 million it's been appraised at.

  • anon||

    I think Whipple has a point; why THIS bumfuck shithole motel? Why not somewhere the ground doesn't fucking freeze for 4 months of the year?

  • robc||

    Its paid for, no mortgage on the property.

  • Surly Chef||

    The property owner can't be too rich, powerful and/or high profile, otherwise they'd be able to create a stink outside of the niche market that is outraged by asset forfeiture laws. Also these theoretical other hospitality owners may have the means to fight a legal battle, whereas in this case they most likely don't.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Because this one has to rely on pro bono representation. If they tried this shit on any of the cocaine-fueled pleasure domes of Las Vegas, the litigation costs would bury the agencies involved.

    -jcr

  • Loki||

    But the feds' deal with the local police is that the local PD will get 80% of the proceeds once it's auctioned. Assuming it goes for it's appraised value, that would mean the feds would only get $260,000. That'll run the government for, what, a nanosecond? What's the point?

    I'm wondering if maybe the guy pissed off this Vincent Kelley douche-nozzle. Maybe Kelley was in town and stayed at the Motel and was unhappy with the service or something.

  • BoxyBoxyBoxyBoxy||

    It's not just $260,000. It's $260,000 not allocated by congress, with basically no strings attached or oversight.

    It's how federal agencies get basically unaccounted slush funds and how the DoJ told congress, "fuck you, we'll buy this prison ourselves."

  • dinkster||

    After all, why should any slush money go towards the deficit?

  • geo1113||

    "But to anyone troubled by the guilty-until-proven-innocent rules of civil forfeiture, it looks a lot like legalized larceny."

    It doesn't "look like", it is legalized larceny.

  • mr simple||

    In a just world the capo Vincent Kelley and the enforcer Carmen Ortiz, members of this dangerous mafia call government, would be stripped of all possessions and thrown in jail. I'm not saying they definitely fuck sheep, just that they're dangerous criminals.

  • Loki||

    I'm not saying they definitely fuck sheep...

    Oh I don't know, I have it good authority that Carmen Ortiz works an underground Tijuana donkey show in her spare time and Vincent Kelley does in fact fuck sheep. Male sheep at that. In the ass, after sucking them off. My source incidentally is the same source that Harry Reid used for Mitt's tax returns.

  • anon||

    Obviously he just needs cameras in every room so he can make sure his guests are taking the proper amount of heroin instead of overdosing.

  • Jake W||

    Obviously the police just need cameras everywhere so they can make sure everyone is following all laws at all times.

    -fixed-

  • Robert||

    That's the point. The only thing he could've done is the one thing that'd've gotten him in much more trouble. And by cooperating with police, he provided the evidence used against his hotel.

    So, reviewing his choices: He could've installed peepholes or cameras, and gotten the life sued out of him and probably a criminal conviction for peeping. Or he could've gotten a sale-leaseback arrangement with a greater sucker. Or he could've actually gone into some sort of drug business from the hotel and at least gotten the benefit of what he was presumed to have.

  • waaminn||

    Welcome to the New Regime!

    www.Anon-Max.tk

  • Fatty Bolger||

    The Dissolution of the Hostelries

    It's the age old technique used by all tyrants. I have the power, you have valuable property and no power. I'll just create some legal excuse to steal your property under color of law, and take it.

  • sarcasmic||

    If this is life in the freest nation on the planet (so we are told), it must really suck in despotic regimes like Canada or Australia.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Next time the Pigs rent a room for surveillance, put a bar across the door and pump CO into the room's A/C unit.

  • ||

    a federal prosecutor cited one heroin overdose and 14 incidents in which guests or visitors were arrested for drug crimes at the motel

    Try refusing to rent rooms to the class of people most likely to be involved in drug crimes and see how graciously the government responds to that strategy.

  • sarcasmic||

    Exactly. He's fucked either way.

  • toolkien||

    Reminds of a story near where I live where a small restaurant (not a chain with suits) was chosen by a gang of "independent" thugs to be their hang out. The owner was dismayed about it and figured he paid taxes to be protected. What he got instead was his business closed down but the local thugocrats. It's not about protecting anyone anymore. I guess it didn't occur to the "municipal" thugs that closing down the business simply meant the "independent" thugs just had to go down the street and start the cycle all over again. And the final result is the businessman was simply caught between the two groups of thugs and no way to protect himself. This is our modern civic reality. He was better off with the independent thugs in the final analysis.

  • Jake W||

    Think of the children, would ya?

  • Robert||

    Were they high class thugs like the Mafia? Or were they low class or weird thugs?

  • Robert Jordan||

    I see government and government contractor jobs throughout most of my job search. I don't apply to them. I turned down a job at Lockheed Martin. I just don't think it's right to work for the federal government anymore, other than possibly in the military.

    I don't know if every federal job requires an oath or affirmation to support and defend the constitution, but I know some of them do. I'm pretty sure constitutional fidelity was mentioned somewhere in the oaths or affirmations given by Carmen Ortiz and Vincent Kelley. They act in disloyalty to the constitution. They, and those like them, act like puddles of dog vomit given animated human form.

  • Loki||

    Unfortunately this is the problem: most good honest people really don't want to work a government job. So the only people who take those jobs are dishonest and/ or lazy shitheels like the two douche rocket bureaucrats mentioned in this story. In truth I have no problem with the lazy ones. Sure it sucks that they get to sit around all day collecting overinflated salaries on the taxpayer dime, and once retired get a nice cushy government pension, again courtesy of taxpayers. But at least if they're lazy they're not fucking over too many decent people. It's the ones that are energetic "go getters" that really piss me off. Especially the ones with titles like "asset forfeiture specialist".

    If I ever become God-King one of the first things I do will be to change the job titles of variuous bureaucrats to make them more descriptive of what they acutally do. So "Asset Forfeiture Specialist" will be changed to "Thieving Asshole". "DEA Agent" will be changed to "Shitheel Who Ruins People's Lives for Ingesting Certain Substances", and so on.

  • Spartacus||

    On the bright side, I hear the FBI is looking for an expert in civil asset forfeiture. Mr. Caswell will surely be an expert by the time he is done with this.

  • Jake W||

    At some point somebody did something that was illegal on your property, I'll be taking that...

  • andarm16||

    equitable sharing will be one of the ways that the Feds keep pot illegal in Washington and Colorado. In the unlikely event that any pot stores actually manage to open, the local police will bend over backwards to help the feds seize them.

  • Fluhdoten1||

    legalizing marijuana is a chance for politicians to cut into drug dealing profits.

    if they simply confiscate they will lose out on their new venture. there is money to be made in taxing pot.

    the legalization of pot in washington should not be viewed as a victory for drug users or libertarians. its a victory of big govt to take your stuff and sponsor(siphon) drug dealers economic activity.

    legalizing something than taxing the shit out of it is not a victory for liberty. its a victory for the regulartory movement.

  • uythsb||

    State law says a seized property has to be used not just to "facilitate" a drug crime but "in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances," which suggests a stronger connection.

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  • coma44||

    There is a Motel 8 in western mass that has been filled up with "
    homelless" and they are getting paid by the govenrment to house them.

    Some maybe good folks with a run of bad luck, but the ones that hang out and smoke outside all look like gang banger rejects with 3 babies. I would bet 10 times the drugs run through this motel 8 then did the Motel Caswell.

    But since the motel 8 coporates with the Government to house the "homeless" for a reduced rate I bet they "keep" their property.

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    There must have a law about drugs in USA

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