A federal magistrate judge has rejected the Boston U.S. attorney’s request for civil forfeiture of a suburban Massachusetts motel, finding that owners are innocent of any illegal drug activity that occurred on the property.
On January 24, Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein issued a 59-page ruling in U.S. v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass., dismissing the forfeiture action.
Dein held that the government failed to prove a substantial connection between the Motel Caswell and the forfeitable crimes. She also held that the claimant, Russell Caswell, trustee of motel owner Tewksbury Realty Trust, has met his burden for the innocent owner defense. Russell and his wife Patricia are the beneficiaries of the trust.
“[It] is rather remarkable, in this court’s view, for the Government to argue in this case that the Property owner should lose his property for failure to undertake some undefined steps in an effort to prevent crime, while putting on evidence that the police drove through the Property routinely, knew the Property owner’s identity and that he lived next door to the Motel, and never contacted him in an effort to work together to control crime at the Property.”
Dein noted that no comparable cases have been found.
“Having failed to notify Mr. Caswell that he had a significant problem, and having failed to take any steps to advise him on what to do, the Government’s resolution of the crime problem should not be to simply take his Property,” Dein wrote.
Dein’s rebuke follows widespread criticism of Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s handling of a criminal case her office brought against entrepreneur and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on January 11.
There are now more than 47,000 signatures on a petition on the White House’s website seeking her removal for overreach.
The U.S. government filed the forfeiture complaint in September 2009, and Dein held a jury-waived trial in November 2012.
She noted in her ruling that the government’s case is built on 15 drug-related incidents from 1994 to 2008, a period when the Motel Caswell rented out approximately 196,000 rooms. Dein also detailed the motel’s extensive lighting and security measures and the owners’ long-standing cooperation with police.
The ruling illustrates the principal that “if the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first try to convict someone of a crime,” said Larry Salzman, an attorney at the Institute for Justice who represented the Caswells.
The forfeiture laws “provide far too much discretion for prosecutors who abuse those laws for their own ends. It certainly has become a massive problem,” Salzman said.
Forfeiture law allows law enforcement agencies to keep all of the proceeds of forfeitures after expenses. The Justice Department can give some of the funds to cooperating local or state law enforcement agencies.
Schlossberg LLC of Braintree, Mass., served as the Caswell’s local counsel.
Ortiz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.