TEWKSBURY, Mass. — When the government arrests drug dealers, it often seeks to confiscate their property. But what happens when the government claims that the facilitator of the drug crimes is not a person but a property?
That’s the situation of the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. The office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is trying to confiscate the property from the motel owner and sell it off, even though he hasn’t committed any crime.
A ‘Dangerous Property’
“The Motel Caswell isn’t the Ritz,” its lawyer gravely told a federal courtroom last week. It was one of few assertions that went unchallenged in the civil trial. For $57 per night, you can get the cheapest room in town. Annette Funicello and the Mouseketeers spent a night here a half a century ago. But it doesn’t get guests like the Mouseketeers anymore.
“I have never been arrested in my entire life and I have absolutely no record at all,” owner Russ Caswell explained. “I’ve never even been questioned about any crimes, never mind charged with any.”
No, the crimes here have been committed by some of its paid “guests.”
“The Motel Caswell is a place people go to distribute, buy and use illegal drugs,” federal prosecutor Sonya Rao told a judge. It is a “dangerous property.”
Those guests from hell have given the government grounds for seeking to confiscate the family-owned property. It’s worth about $1.5 million.
Russ Caswell calls that “un-American.”
“I’ve found, which is kind of hard to believe, but I’m responsible for the action of people I don’t even know, I’ve never even met, and for the most part I have no control over them,” Caswell said. “And yet I have to rent them a room unless I have a real good reason not to or I get accused of discrimination and that kind of thing.
“And when they do something wrong, the government wants to steal my property for the actions of those people, which to me makes absolutely no sense. It’s more like we’re in Russia or Venezuela or something.”
A couple of years ago, the 69-year-old motel owner got blindsided by a letter from the government that announced it was coming after his property. The town of Tewksbury had never denied Caswell any permits and the police had never given him any warnings.
The DEA set the U.S. attorney into motion. It has a special agent here in Boston who seeks out targets for forfeiture.
“As he describes his job, he looks through the newspapers and looks at the Internet, looking for news stories of properties that might be forfeitable and brings them to the attention of the U.S. attorney,” Caswell’s attorney, Larry Salzman, said.
According to the agent’s sworn testimony, he then goes to the Registry of Deeds to determine the value of the targeted property. The DEA rejects anything with less than $50,000 equity.
In the case of the Caswell, the agent saw its worth close to $1.5 million with no mortgage. That made it a fat target for the U.S. attorney, says another of Caswell’s lawyers, Scott Bullock.
“We view civil forfeiture as one of the greatest assaults on private property rights in the nation today,” Bullock said.
Bullock and Salzman work for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. They entered this case without charge after Caswell had gone through $100,000 he borrowed to defend himself.
“They figure it was a little ma and pa operation and they can just come in and bully us around. They’re not used to people fighting back, and I wouldn’t have been able to fight back,” Caswell said. “Financially, you can’t afford to fight it.”
At the civil trial last week, the federal prosecutor laid out 15 drug crimes that occurred at the motel between 1994 and 2008: a heroin overdose in room 227, a methamphetamine lab in 225, heroin in 209, crack in 237.
“There was one constant,” prosecutor Veronica Lei told the judge, “the Motel Caswell.”
“Because certain people that stayed at his motel over the course of a 20-year period were involved in drug crimes,” committed behind closed doors, added Bullock, “the government’s position is that is enough to take away everything that this man has worked for. That is an outrageous abuse of forfeiture laws and we’re trying to put a stop to it.”
Fifteen crimes in 14 years. Caswell insists that’s a minimal rate. He says he rents 14,000 rooms a year. But the government argues that Caswell must have known and was “willingly blind” to the drug crimes or that he did nothing to stop them from reoccurring.
Sending A Message
As the prosecutor emphasized to the judge, the burden in this trial is on Caswell to prove he’s an innocent owner.
“This is the exact opposite of the criminal standard where the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty,” Bullock said. “In civil forfeiture laws you have to prove your innocence. And that’s one of the main reasons that civil forfeiture laws simply should not exist.”
Is there any way Caswell couldn’t have known what was going on?
“I don’t know how I can see through the doors,” Caswell said.
On the stand, Caswell testified he called police whenever he saw suspicious activity. And the Tewksbury Police testified they never communicated with Caswell about what he could do to reduce drug crimes.
U.S. Attorney Ortiz said through a spokeswoman last week that the government wanted to send a message by going after the motel. But just up the street from the Caswell, the Motel 6, Walmart and Home Depot have all experienced a similar rate of drug crimes on their properties over the years, according to Caswell’s attorneys.
And attorney Salzman says there’s one good reason Ortiz didn’t go after them.
“Mr. Caswell is a small business,” Salzman said. “A single family owned this property, didn’t have the resources to defend himself, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, looking to make an example, picked on the smallest kid on the block.”
A kid without deep pockets and an army of corporate lawyers.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney said Tuesday the government is not put off by “big companies” and “deep pockets,” and referred to previous statements about the warning to businesses who turn a blind eye.
Should the government win its case, it will sell off Caswell’s property and give the Tewksbury Police 80 percent of the take.
At the conclusion of closing arguments, Magistrate Judge Judith Dein said she will look over additional material before announcing her verdict.