Motel Owner Wins Civil Forfeiture Suit Against Government

| by Kathryn Schroeder

A motel owner who had his business property seized by the government without warning fought the system, and won.

Russ Caswell, 72, received a letter from the U.S. government stating it was taking his business property—a motel worth nearly $2 million—through civil asset forfeiture.

The Drug Enforcement Administration used civil asset forfeiture regulations as they claimed illegal activity was taking place at the motel, granting them the right to seize the property regardless of whether the owner had committed a crime.

“When this first started, I got this notice in the mail and I thought it was some sort of mistake or something, with no warning, no nothing…basically, after you got through all the legal mumbo jumbo, it said, ‘We’re taking your property,’ and I was dumbfounded,” Caswell told TheBlaze.

Caswell was not going to give up his property without a fight, and he filed in federal court.  The United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts—otherwise known as Motel Caswell—had begun.

Caswell still did not know why his property had been seized when the case began.

“My lawyer deposed eight of the local police and I figured I’d find out what they say I should have done or didn’t do, but it turns out after the depositions none of them said a single thing against me, it’s like they were on my side — I don’t think they were or weren’t — but they had nothing to say against me,” Caswell said.

It was not until Vincent Kelley, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, was deposed by Caswell’s lawyer that the reason became known.

Kelley was asked how properties are chosen for seizure.

His response revealed that the DEA’s process included “seeking out places that were linked to drug arrests, but they would only try to seize properties that had at least $50,000 in equity.”

“So then it was like a light went off,” Caswell said. “Now I get what this is about, it’s not about drugs at all — it’s about stealing people’s property.”

Caswell and his wife had never had any run-ins with the law and always cooperated with police that were called to the motel.  This was all backed-up by testimony at the trial.

“I’m proud of my business and I do everything I can to keep my guests safe,” Caswell wrote in an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Times. “I’ve installed cameras, keep a “do-not-rent” list at the front desk, regularly check IDs and license plates and keep the property well-lit. I’ve even given free rooms to the police so they can hold stakeouts and bust the bad guys.”

Caswell still had to defend his motel in court against the government’s evidence of 15 drug arrests taking place at the motel - a shockingly low number.

“A local paper found big-box stores down the road had more drug activity than my motel,” Caswell said.

Had the government won in court they would have earned 80 percent of the motel’s worth, more than $1 million.  It would have gone to the Tewksbury Police Department.

Caswell believes he was targeted because of the motel’s worth.

“Since there’s no mortgage on my property and I’m not a big corporation, the Motel Caswell became a tempting target to police for profit,” Caswell said.  “A Drug Enforcement Administration agent even testified it was his job to scour the register of deeds, looking for properties to seize.”

Caswell paid $100,000 in legal bills before receiving help from Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm.

A federal judge ruled against the government and stopped the forfeiture.

Boston Business Journal outlines the reasons given by the judge:

The government had identified only a limited number of qualified drug-related incidents, spread out over a 15-year period. None of the incidents — law enforcement officials eventually named 15 of them— involved Caswell or his employees, or even people that Caswell was familiar with.

  • There were essentially no efforts to work with Caswell to reduce drug crimes at the property before prosecutors moved ahead with forfeiture proceedings in 2009.
  • There was no warning given to Caswell that the possibility of a property seizure even existed.
  • Caswell, who lives next door to the motel with his family, and his employees took reasonable steps to secure the property and cooperate with police.

Prosecutors maintain that the seizure was not about raising money for the government but intended to help police manage the drug trade.

Caswell believes the civil forfeiture was done for the intended profit.

In order to try and reform America’s forfeiture laws, Caswell is calling on Congress to end equitable sharing, a program that allows the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to split the proceeds from a civil forfeiture.

Caswell believes civil forfeiture is “completely un-American and goes against the Constitution.”

Sources: The Blaze, Washington Times, Boston Business Journal

Photo Source: The Blaze, W. Marc Bernsau/Boston Business Journal