When prosecutors tried to seize his family’s Tewksbury motel where drug incidents had been reported, Russ Caswell couldn’t believe the feds had the right to take a property from someone who was never charged with a crime.
Well, it turns out Caswell was right after all: A magistrate judge in Boston federal court just ruled that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to justify seizing the Motel Caswell. They didn’t even come close.
The Caswell case garnered national attention, particularly among individuals and groups concerned that this exemplified governmental overreach into a citizen’s private life. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm, jumped at the chance to defend Caswell’s right to hold on to his property nearly two years ago.
The case now becomes a high-profile loss for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office has been besieged by criticism in recent weeks over her handling of the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. His family believes Swartz — a computer whiz who faced prison time because of a hacking incident at MIT — committed suicide this month because of the office’s overzealous prosecution.
In the Caswell case, Magistrate Judge Judith Dein held a bench trial in November and carefully considered the pleadings as well as post-trial arguments. In just about every respect, the U.S. Attorney’s office came out on the losing end.
Dein’s ruling today pointed to several reasons why prosecutors didn’t have the right to seize the Motel Caswell:
- 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 had been tipped off about the motel by a federal agent whose primary job was to identify properties for forfeiture. But prosecutors maintained that this wasn’t about raising money for the government, and was instead about helping local police crack down on the drug trade.
Caswell, who says he was completely blindsided by the original forfeiture papers, isn’t so sure about that. He has suspected that the value of the motel’s 4.5-acre property on Main Street in Tewksbury was a primary driver behind the feds’ pursuit of this case. It’s in a commercial zone, and Caswell and his wife owned the property outright, without a mortgage. He estimates that it’s worth more than $1 million.
The Motel Caswell certainly isn’t the Four Seasons. Rooms rent for $56 a night, there are some long-term tenants, and there have been a number of drug arrests over the years. But those arrests, it turns out, aren’t enough to the government’s seizure of the hotel.
At 69 years of age, Caswell should be thinking about retirement, instead of worrying that his life’s work could be swept away from him. Now, thanks to Dein’s judgment, Caswell can cross that big headache off his list.
Tewksbury motel owner wins battle against feds in high-profile property seizure case
January 24, 2013
Boston Business Journal