by Darpana Sheth
February 27, 2014
Russ Caswell has owned his family-run budget motel in Tewksbury, Massachusetts since he purchased it in 1984. Unencumbered by any mortgages, the Motel Caswell is valued at over $1.5 million. Without prior notice, the federal government filed a civil-forfeiture complaint against the motel asserting that a small number of the motel’s guests or their visitors surreptitiously engaged in various drug activities, unseen and unknown to Mr. Caswell at the time these events occurred. Fortunately, after four years of litigation, Mr. Caswell won. But his victory is unusual. Civil-forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private-property rights today. Based on a legal fiction that property can be guilty of a criminal activity, civil forfeiture enables law enforcement to take property, regardless of whether the property owner is guilty or innocent or even charged with a crime. Additional procedural safeguards are necessary to protect against forfeiture abuse.