The Motel Caswell is currently involved in federal litigation due to a process known as “civil forfeiture,” in which property can be taken regardless of whether an owner has committed a crime. This is known as forfeiture in rem, where the crime is being charged against a place, not a person. The government, in conjunction with the Tewksbury Police Department, had found that the Motel Caswell was the site of 7 major drug investigations and arrests from 2001–2008. In addition, the police claimed there were an estimated 100 drug investigations conducted on the property.
Civil forfeiture does not require the state or federal government to compensate the owner in any way for the forfeiture. The police department responsible for initiating the forfeiture, in fact, would receive up to 80% of the proceeds at auction, which would be added to their department’s budget to aid in the prevention of future drug-related crimes. The Motel Caswell has no mortgage and is valued at over $1.8M as of 2009, when the process was started. The only recourse for the owners would be to prove that they are “innocent” of any knowledge of the crimes. The innocent owner clause, which is part of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, states that owners are required to prove that they “did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property,” in regards to any crimes that may have occurred on the premises. Congress passed CAFRA after hearing a similar case in which the government attempted to seize the Red Carpet Inn of Houston, TX from its owners, even though the hotel staff had gone to lengths to notify the local police of illegal activity in order to allow them to take preventive action.
The Institute for Justice is representing the Motel Caswell, challenging the seizure as unconstitutional on the basis of the 8th and 10th Amendments. Attorneys Scott Bullock and Larry Salzman argued that the forfeiture of the motel would constitute an excessive fine (8th Amendment) because it would deprive the owners of their livelihood, and it is also circumventing state law (10th Amendment) because MA forfeiture law would not have allowed for such a seizure. Judge Dein recently announced her decision on the preliminary hearing to dismiss the civil forfeiture action taken by the Tewksbury Police Department. “U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein yesterday denied on procedural grounds a motion by motel owner Russ Caswell of Tewksbury, Mass., to have the federal case dismissed, clearing the way for a full trial,” according to an article on the Institute for Justice website, published last week.
A more in-depth post on the judge’s recent decision will be posted here later this week. Check back soon.