The Associated Press

Mass. Motel Owner Fights Move To Seize Property

This Nov. 9, 2011, photo shows Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

This Nov. 9, 2011, photo shows Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

TEWKSBURY, Mass. — Russ Caswell is not charged with any crime, but next week he’ll be in a federal courtroom fighting to keep a motel his father built almost six decades ago.

A Crime-Ridden Motel

The U.S. government has moved to take the Motel Caswell, a $57-per-night budget motel, under a law that allows for the forfeiture of properties connected to crimes. The government says the motel should be shut down because of drug dealing by some of its guests.

Caswell, 69, is still stunned by the move, three years after he received a forfeiture notice in the mail.

“They are holding me responsible for the actions of a few people who I don’t know and I’ve never met before, people who rent a room,” Caswell said. “Out of thousands of people who stay here, a handful do something wrong and they’re trying to blame me for it.”

The case goes to trial Monday in U.S. District Court in Boston.

In this Nov. 9, 2011, photo, owner Russ Caswell reaches for a room key behind the front desk of the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

In this 2011 photo, owner Russ Caswell reaches for a room key behind the front desk of the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

In its petition to take the motel, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston lists eight drug arrests made at the motel between 2001 and 2008. In an affidavit, a Tewksbury police detective says that the motel has been the subject of more than 100 drug investigations since 1994.

“The government believed that this was an important case, not only for the town of Tewksbury, which has been plagued for decades by the criminal activity at Motel Caswell, but because of the important deterrent message it sends to others who may turn a blind eye to crime occurring at their place of business,” said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

“The purpose of the investigation was strictly law enforcement-related and in response to the ongoing criminal activity at Motel Caswell that spanned nearly 30 years without any effort by the owner to be addressed.”

Caswell’s lawyers say every budget motel has a certain number of guests who commit crimes, but the government targeted the Motel Caswell because it is family-owned and mortgage-free.

Under a provision of the forfeiture law known as “equitable sharing,” if the government wins, the Tewksbury police department could receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the motel, which is assessed at about $1.3 million, Caswell said.

Seizing A Property Without A Conviction

Criminal forfeiture laws require a person to be convicted of a crime before property can be taken, but civil forfeiture allows prosecutors to take properties without convicting anyone.

The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based libertarian public interest law firm, is representing Caswell. Senior attorney Scott Bullock said that under the forfeiture law, the government will have to first show there is a “substantial connection” between the motel and the drug activity that has occurred there.

Even if they are able to make that connection, Caswell could still prevail if he is able to show that he had no knowledge of the criminal activity or took reasonable steps to try to curtail the activity, Bullock said.

“This is a case where there is no ongoing criminal enterprise, certainly not by Mr. Caswell. These were random, third parties who just happened to use the Motel Caswell, as opposed to another property, to commit drug crimes,” Bullock said.

But the government says Caswell knew or should have known that his property was used for drug activity and that he failed to do everything he could to deter the activity.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein will hear the case instead of a jury. The trial is expected to last several days.

Caswell plans to testify about the history of the motel, which was built by his father in the 1950s. He took over the business in 1983.

Caswell said the number of drug-related arrests at the motel is minuscule, considering that he has rented about 14,000 room nights per year over the past 20 years. He said he has always tried to discourage criminal activity at the motel and offered free rooms to police conducting sting operations or surveillance of people suspected of drug activity.

“They let drugs get into Tewksbury and then try to blame me for it when some get into my property,” he said.

“The law is totally wrong. … They can just come in and take your property, and in the same breath say, no, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

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  • CeraVana

    I grew up in this town and the Caswell always got a bad rap.  It was the place your parents warned you about on prom night.  I don’t know how much of that reputation was based in fact or if it was blown out of proportion.  But if the owner hasn’t done anything illegal and hasn’t knowingly been involved in or allowed criminal enterprise to take place on his property, it doesn’t seem right that his property should be forfeit.  Indeed, in this article, the owner asserts that he has always cooperated with police.

  • Michael Murphy

    Lets see between 2001-2008 8 arrests I dont think thats a lot.If those Friggen Keystone Cops did their jobs that number would be even lower.What makes me really laugh is Obama admits  doing Hard drugs and he is President.Good example.I live in the next town and all I can say to their Police Dept,LOSE WEIGHT Your all Fat Slobs….

    • jefe68

      So did GW Bush. But that’s not the point nor does it have anything to do with this story.

      I also think this is a huge miscarriage of justice and that there must be more to this story than is being told here.

      Insulting the police in the manner that you do is juvenile.

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes

       You mention “Obama admits doing hard drugs” which even if true, is irrelevant to this article.
      During the Reagan era, when the Neo-cons gained control, the new “global order” began to overturn long-held sacrosanct constitutional protections, under the guise 0f fighting the “war on drugs” by giving local police the bounties of their plunder.
      This was such an obvious breach of the constitution, in essence overturning a “victims” right to be assumed innocent, until proven guilty in a court of law.
      What made these new laws extra pernicious, was that it made “perpetrators of those who were not even charged with crimes, and to add insult to injury, for them to to prove their innocence-and bear the consequent legal costs, regardless of outcome.

      The public in essence has handed over the keys to the chicken coop to the foxes-local police by providing them with the incentive to go after innocent business owners-much the same in principal  as the gestapo of the 30′s and early 40′s in Germany.

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