Caswell to talk evils of civil forfeiture before U.S. Senate panel (MA)

TEWKSBURY — Two years after the owners of the Motel Caswell won their battle against the federal government to save their business, U.S. senators will gather to hear the family’s story.

Owner Russ Caswell has since sold the property along Route 38 — now demolished to make way for a bowling alley — but he will share his story before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Wednesday to fight for reform in civil forfeiture.

Caswell and his wife, Patricia, won a four-year lawsuit with the federal government, which was trying to seize the property through civil forfeiture. The law allows the government to seize property under suspicion of criminal activity, without charging or convicting property owners.

With a number of drug incidents over the years, the government had claimed the motel facilitated drug trafficking without doing enough to prevent the crimes.

In 2013, a federal judge dismissed the case arguing that police did not make an effort to work with Caswell to reduce the drug problem.

Though they escaped losing their livelihood, Caswell and his wife, Patricia, are hoping to save other property owners from the same fate.

“He’s just an ordinary working man, he’s not one to give speeches,” Patricia Caswell said as her husband made his way to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. “But he will do this for as long as he can.”

Caswell said there are so many other people that this affects, and said her husband hopes to help at least one person win their case.

“They’re just robbing the American public blind,” she said. “There’s so many things that are so wrong. You work all our life to make a living and they want to take it from you, and you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the non-profit Institute for Justice that helped the Caswells with their case, said their situation is a great example of how forfeiture laws are abused at the federal level.

“People on both sides of the aisle, outsiders like civil liberties groups as well as insiders — even the Department of Justice has recognized the need for forfeiture reform,” she said. “These laws represent one of the most significant assaults on property rights, as well as due process, in our nation today.”

The direct financial incentive to seize property, combined with a lack of adequate procedures, has led to a “toxic mix” that creates a situation for widespread abuse, Sheth said.

“This is an issue that unites the left and right,” she said. “Everyone can agree that Americans shouldn’t be able to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, or without having adequate procedural safeguards at least. Everyone can agree that law enforcement should not be directly benefiting from seizure of this property.”

The hearing on civil forfeiture comes as bills in both the House and Senate aim to strengthen the burden of proof for the federal government in such proceedings. Those bills were introduced by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Tim Walberg of Michigan.

Russ Caswell will also be back in D.C. on April 21 for an event open to all members of Congress to learn about civil forfeiture.


Caswell to talk evils of civil forfeiture before U.S. Senate panel
Amelia Pak-Harvey
April 14, 2015
Lowell Sun

Additional coverage:

Caswell tells Senate panel: Property seizure was ‘all about money’
Chelsea Feinstein
April 15, 2015
Lowell Sun

WASHINGTON — Tewksbury resident Russ Caswell, who successfully fought off a federal government attempt to seize his motel under civil forfeiture laws in 2013, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning in a push for reforming the law.

The government attempted to seize the Motel Caswell in 2009, citing 15 drug incidents that had taken place on the Route 38 property from 1994 to 2008.

The case was dismissed when a federal judge found that police made no effort to work with or warn Caswell. Caswell has since sold the property for $2.1 million to make way for a bowling alley and entertainment facility.

Caswell described his experience as a “living nightmare” courtesy of the federal government. He said he was targeted despite the fact that he had cooperated with police, put cameras up at the motel and checked IDs and license plates for known criminals.

He said he believes he was targeted because his motel was a “mom-and-pop business,” rather than a major corporation with the means to fight a lawsuit.

“They just saw us as a soft target with a big financial gain for themselves,” Caswell said.

“It was all about money. It wasn’t about drugs,” he added.

Caswell urged reforms to the law that would require conviction of a crime before assets are seized.

Institute for Justice attorney Darpana Sheth, who represented Caswell, also testified Wednesday.

She said that their were two key defects in the existing law: the incentive for agencies to “self-finance” with the assets they seize, and inadequate protections for property owners.

The single most important reform that needs to be made to the law, Sheth said, is restoring the presumption of innocence.

“The deck is really stacked against property owners,” she said.

The committee also heard from Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, and Jonathan Bach of law firm Cooley LLP.