Fighting Back Against Civil Forfeiture Laws

Civil Forfeiture Laws

By Keith Johnson

Tewksbury, Mass. – Up until recently, Russ Caswell has been living the American dream. For more than a half-century, he and his family have operated a modest  motel his father built in 1955. He owns the property free and clear and was expecting to retire in the near future. But thanks to unconstitutional civil forfeiture laws being enforced by the federal government, Caswell’s plans have been cut short, and his dream has been turned into a nightmare.

The ordeal began two years ago when Caswell and his wife each received letters from the feds notifying them that their million-dollar property was being seized.

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Caswell, who spoke to this AMERICAN FREE PRESS writer on October 13. “You expect something like this to happen in Cuba or Soviet Russia, but not in the United States.”

Caswell said he has been a law-abiding American and a well-respected member of his community for his entire life. He diligently paid his operating permits and has passed more than a dozen yearly inspections by the fire department and the Board of Health. But because a handful of people who rented rooms from the Caswells between 2001 and 2009 were arrested on drug offenses, the Department of Justice—working in cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Tewksbury Police Department—has moved to take Caswell’s property by way of federal “civil forfeiture” laws.

In the end, Caswell could end up with nothing after the feds sell his property and split the proceeds through an “equitable sharing arrangement” that would award the Tewksbury police with an 80 percent share and the federal government with the rest.

“I never knew about these laws,” says Caswell. “The first time I found out I was in any kind of trouble is when I opened my mailbox. I felt like I was being robbed. But instead of putting a gun to my head, these people used a pen.”

One of the things that troubles Caswell most is that he has always cooperated with the police and believed they had a good working relationship.

“I call them at the first sign of trouble,” says Caswell. “I’ve put up signs, installed cameras, and I’ve opened up my books so the police could see if someone that they were looking for was staying here. They never complained or said I wasn’t doing enough.”

For the past two years, Caswell has not only suffered a loss of business from negative publicity, but he has also spent tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

“They [the government] wanted me to settle,” says Caswell, “and I guess most people would. But I’ve done nothing wrong, and I’m not about to go that route.”

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Due in part to dwindling funds, Caswell recently enlisted the help of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that fights civil forfeiture abuse nationwide. Larry Salzman is a lawyer with the firm who recently spoke to AFP about Caswell’s case.

“Civil forfeiture cases really treat innocent property owners worse than criminals,” says Salzman. “Criminals must be proven guilty before property is taken. But once the federal government targets property for civil forfeitures, not only does the owner have to prove that they didn’t know anything about the crime, they also have to prove that they did everything possible—without putting themselves in harm’s way—to stop it.”

When asked if the Caswell case was unique, Salzman replied: “The federal forfeiture fund has more than $1.6B in revenue it’s generated in the past year. There are a lot of properties being taken in this manner. It’s an expensive proposition to take on the government. Many find that it’s simply easier to settle out of court. That’s why abusive forfeiture cases are rarely reported.”

He went on to say: “Allowing police to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives the direct financial incentive to abuse power. In a case like this where an agency stands to get more than $1M from a single forfeiture, I think that shows that fair and impartial law enforcement doesn’t exist.”

Salzman also believes the Caswells have been victims of selective enforcement.

“If they [the government] go after the Holiday Inn, they have to deal with their corporate lawyers,” he said. “But if they go after the Motel Caswell, they’re only dealing with a family with a mortgage-free property.”

The Caswells are expected in court on November 8. “We’re going to argue that the forfeiture laws themselves are in excess of federal powers,” says Salzman.

“And we’re going to argue that the punishment involved in this case violates the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

For more information on the Caswells, please visit their Facebook page, Friends of Russ Caswell.

Keith Johnson in an investigative journalist and host of the Revolt of the Plebs radio program.