Feds’ property forfeiture case turns family business in Tewksbury into heartbreak motel
Russ Caswell, in front of his family business in Tewksbury (Institute for Justice photo)
Russ Caswell had no idea the federal government could take his family’s motel because of drug deals that supposedly happened there. After all, Caswell had never been accused of committing a crime.
But Caswell quickly became well-versed in asset forfeiture rules after he received notices in September 2009 informing him that the feds wanted to seize the Motel Caswell and its 4.5-acre property on Main Street in Tewksbury.
With the help of a public interest law firm in Virginia, Caswell tried to have the case dismissed on constitutional grounds. The government, he argued, has a perverse incentive to take innocent individuals’ properties because they can generate revenue for federal investigators and local police.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein handed prosecutors a victory Wednesday by denying Caswell’s motion to dismiss the case in Boston federal court. But the Institute for Justice, the libertarian-leaning law firm supporting Caswell, says the dismissal could lead to a bigger defeat for prosecutors. Dein’s decision opens the doors to a potential trial that could set new precedents for government officials’ ability to take away properties from citizens.
To hold onto his motel, Caswell will need to successfully make the case that he did all he reasonably could do to stop drug-dealing there. Prosecutors will argue that numerous police calls to the motel show that Caswell doesn’t deserve to win.
The typical perception of asset forfeitures involves images of guns, cars and drugs used by the bad guys. However, in certain circumstances, innocent individuals’ properties can be seized, too.
Caswell says this case is driven by the fact his mortgage-free, commercially-zoned property is worth more than $1 million. The prosecutors, meanwhile, say they’re just trying to help local police crack down on illegal drug sales.
We’re not talking about the Ritz-Carlton – or even a Holiday Inn. Caswell says he rents the 56 rooms in his motel out for $56 a night, or $285 a week. The motel’s few TripAdvisor reviews range from bad to worse.
But critical reviews are no reason for the government to seize a motel. When the Institute for Justice was contacted about this case, the group jumped at the chance to defend Caswell for free a year ago, institute lawyer Larry Salzman says.
Salzman says the case represents one of the most outrageous abuses of civil forfeitures that he has seen. The drug issues in the neighborhood, near the Lowell city line, aren’t limited to Caswell’s site by any means. The vast majority of people who stay at the motel are law-abiding customers. Salzman maintains Caswell was targeted because he’s an independent businessman of relatively modest means – he draws a $72,000 salary from the motel – and that the site could be seized, free and clear of any mortgage.
The feds were tipped off about the motel by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent whose primary job was to identify properties for forfeiture. In this case, the agent believes he learned about the property in 2008 by reading news accounts. He then contacted the Tewksbury Police Department, and eventually received detailed stories of drug deals at the motel.
Around the time the Institute for Justice got involved, Caswell was talking to prosecutors about a possible settlement. Caswell, who lives next door with his family and is now 68 years old, certainly never envisioned he’d be fighting with the government as he approached retirement age.
A figure was floated. Prosecutors had proposed settling the case for about $167,000 if Caswell agreed to sell the motel within a certain period of time. But Caswell never signed the proposal. Caswell eventually decided he wanted nothing to do with it, in part because of restrictions the government would impose on his use of the motel while he still owned it.
By last fall, prosecutors were asking the court to force Caswell to accept a settlement. Dein, who is overseeing the case, eventually ruled in Caswell’s favor, in part because there were enough important unresolved issues that weren’t fully negotiated.
But things didn’t go Caswell’s way this time. The Institute for Justice had argued that the motel’s seizure would violate both the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment – by forcing an excessive punishment on Caswell – and the Tenth Amendment – by superceding state forfeiture rules. Dein rejected both arguments Wednesday, essentially on procedural grounds.
So now, both sides will most likely begin preparing for trial. Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, says the prosecutors’ sole interest in the property is for law enforcement and public safety purposes. She points to the proposed settlement as evidence that prosecutors aren’t in this case just to drum up extra revenue.
Meanwhile, Caswell says the prosecutors are motivated by money, and not any drug problem. He says if they were worried about crime, they would be helping him instead of trying to hang him. He says the legal battle cast a cloud over the motel, causing many customers to leave and making other long-term tenants unsure about their future.
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