Can the federal government legally seize and sell a motel merely because some of the people who stayed there committed drug offenses? No, it can't, a federal magistrate decided in January, blocking the forfeiture of the Motel Caswell, a family-owned business in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
At a trial last November, federal prosecutors 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 tiny percentage of the 200,000 or so room rentals during that period—to show the business was a "dangerous property" ripe for seizure. The government argued that owner Russell Caswell was "willfully blind" to drug activity.
In a January 24 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein rejected that argument, concluding that the connection between the property and the drug offenses was not substantial enough to make it forfeitable under federal law. Even if it were, Dein said, Caswell would qualify for an "innocent owner" defense.
"The evidence was undisputed that Mr. Caswell did not know the guests involved in the drug crimes, did not know of their anticipated criminal behavior at the time they registered as guests, and did not know of the drug crimes while they were occurring," Dein wrote, adding that "the Government has failed to establish that drug crime was so blatant and pervasive at the Motel that Mr. Caswell had 'actual knowledge' that drug crimes were likely to occur" there.
After Dein's decision, Caswell, noting that "the government goes after people they think can't afford to fight," thanked the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm that represented him. "It is hard to believe anything like this goes on in our country," he said. "The public needs to stand up against these abuses of power."