Drug Dealing and Legal Stealing

The feds try to take a family’s motel because some of its guests broke the law.

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 November 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 just 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 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.  

Update: On January 24, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein blocked the attempted forfeiture of the Motel Caswell.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Carmen Ortiz? Where have we heard that name before?

    Federal prosecutors, they're faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaantastic.

  • John||

    She just wanted to make sure that Martha Coakley had some competition for most loathsome person in the state.

  • Anomalous||

    It's a tie!

  • Frank_Carbonni||

    I know that was the name of one of Niko's girlfriends in Grand Theft Auto 4.

  • Contrarian P||

    I'm pretty sure Massachusetts has been used for drug use. We should take it and sell it off.

  • RightNut||

    Who the fuck would buy it?

  • Finrod||

    I agree completely.

  • JW||

    This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration who 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.

    And signed off on by his superior, the police and everyone else involved. Someone, *anyone*, in the food chain with adult supervision capacity could have made this stop at any time they wished.

    Fuck all these evil fucks. I hope they all burn alive.

  • Finrod||

    In a just world everyone in that food chain would be liable in civil court for attempted conversion.

  • ||

    Great. Give the cops a monetary incentive to pull garbage like this.

    This STINKS of the possibility of corruption against citizens. All it takes is ONE ambitious puke.

    Seriously. Fuck these assholes. It's an immoral act to do these to people. I don't give a shit what the government says. Where do liberals stand on shit like this?

    Circle of Hell. I'm sure Dante would have a spot for this jerks.

  • ||

    'It's an immoral act to do this to people.'

  • ||

    If you want to now "where liberals stand on shit like this" just read my comment below.

    The last thing I want in the world is for a greedy intrusive government to have the "legal" right to seize us or our property, or otherwise trample on our Constitutional rights, whenever they just happen to feel like it.

    It's why I also oppose the mass seizure of guns from people who've never used them once illegally.
    Gun safety is fine. Gun seizure is crap.

    The part you probably won't like is where that reasoning takes you, if you apply it consistently.

    I personally abhor abortion. I don't think I could ever have one, even if going through with a pregnancy put my life greatly at risk. But I'm pro-choice and strongly oppose crap like forced trans-vaginal ultrasound, because it's not the damn government's business what we do to our own bodies. (If you oppose an "intrusive" government, forcing women to have something shoved up the most private place in the world is unthinkable.)

    Frankly, I think we've wasted zillions of taxpayer dollars on the "war against drugs" -- money that could have been spent much better, or even better yet -- not have been spent at all. It's done zilch to stop drug use. And the only reason we don't have a similar "war against alcohol" is that we'd have to arrest virtually every elected representatives in Washington.

    Not a bad idea, come to think of it!

  • Anomalous||

    Find out where he lives and sell a couple of joints on his lawn.

  • Not a Libertarian||

    Motel Caswell Owners Defeat Federal Forfeiture Based on Guests' Drug Offenses vs. Jacob Sullum on Asset Forfeiture Abuse

    Which
    Thread
    Will
    Win?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    On January 24, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein blocked the attempted forfeiture of the Motel Caswell.

    Unfortunately, he did not order the people involved rounded up and charged with a RICO conspiracy.

  • 34lbs||

  • goody2shoes||

    I can confirm that is relevant

  • SwineSlayer||

    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.” I cound not agree more and as such I DEMAND that all police that overlook their other police buddies law breaking and do nothing to ever stop it be stripped of their property and all retirement pension plans and benefits. I think it would send an important deterent message to the FUCKING PIGS!

  • deffmike||

    Just unbelievable.

  • ||

    Before robbing the innocents like Caswell, our government ought to look to itself. For at least forty years, at Davis Air Force Base, it's been selling everything from seized jets to jaguars back to the same drug traffickers they seized them from in the first place.

    Unless it's truly egregious (long lines of weirdos leaving with bag in hand throughout the night) how the heck is a guy like Caswell supposed to know who's dealing and who's not? And how fair is it, for that matter, to expect an elderly motel owner to confront those he suspects are drug dealers, thus putting is health and welfare at risk?

    If they can't prove a property owner facilitated and profited from drug dealing on his premises, the feds have no business seizing diddly-squat from him.

  • Frank_Carbonni||

    You forgot, "Fuck you, that's why"

  • شات عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world
    http://www.iraaqna.com

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement