Asset Forfeiture: "A Process of Government Enrichment That Often Is Indistinguishable from Robbery"


The case of United States of America v. 434 Main Street Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts is currently awaiting trial in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. At issue is an attempt by the federal government, acting in cooperation with local law enforcement, to use federal asset forfeiture law to seize a family business, the Motel Caswell, because a tiny fraction of the motel's guests have been arrested for drug crimes over the past two decades. In his latest Washington Post column, George Will comes out swinging against this case of government abuse:

The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. They are being persecuted by two governments eager to profit from what is antiseptically called the "equitable sharing" of the fruits of civil forfeiture, a process of government enrichment that often is indistinguishable from robbery….

Since 1994, about 30 motel customers have been arrested on drug-dealing charges. Even if those police figures are accurate — the police have a substantial monetary incentive to exaggerate — these 30 episodes involved less than 5/100ths of 1 percent of the 125,000 rooms Caswell has rented over those more than 6,700 days. Yet this is the government's excuse for impoverishing the Caswells by seizing this property, which is their only significant source of income and all of their retirement security.

The government says the rooms were used to "facilitate" a crime. It does not say the Caswells knew or even that they were supposed to know what was going on in all their rooms all the time. Civil forfeiture law treats citizens worse than criminals, requiring them to prove their innocence — to prove they did everything possible to prevent those rare crimes from occurring in a few of those rooms. What counts as possible remains vague. The Caswells voluntarily installed security cameras, they photocopy customers' identifications and record their license plates, and they turn the information over to the police, who have never asked the Caswells to do more.

Read the rest of Will's column here. For more on asset-forfeiture abuse, see Radley Balko's 2010 Reason feature "The Forfeiture Racket."