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In what is being called a triumph for property rights, a federal judge in Boston has rejected the federal government's attempt to seize a family-owned motel in Tewksbury under a controversial civil forfeiture law.
The owners of Motel Caswell have never been charged with any crimes and have never come under police suspicion. But in a trial last November, the U.S. attorney's office sought to take the property because it alleged the motel — the building — had "facilitated" drug crimes.
"I'm in shock right now," said 69-year-old Russell Caswell Thursday. "Been three and a half years of this garbage. Takes a while to comprehend it's finally over with."
Caswell had all his savings tied in the motel that charges $57 a night for a room. He never had any trouble getting license renewals from the town. He'd never received any warnings from the police when he got a letter from the U.S. attorney's office a few years ago announcing they were coming after his property because of crimes committed by some of his guests.
At trial, federal prosecutors introduced information about 15 specific drug-related incidents that occurred in a 14 year period. "It should be noted" wrote Magistrate Judge Judith Dein in Thursday's decision, that during that time period, Caswell had rented out 196,000 rooms.
"I don't know how I can see through the doors," Caswell said last November in reference to the fact that those alleged crimes took place in closed rooms.
Now, even after winning, Caswell can't forget his years under threat.
"You've just been going through this stuff every day thinking about it, scratching your head like, 'What the heck is this all about?' You know? 'Where'd this come from?' It's just hard to believe this stuff can happen to people when you've done absolutely nothing," Caswell said. "And they even say I've done nothing."
The judge concluded that there was no evidence that Caswell knew of any drug activities, which he did not report to the police.
After spending $100,000 defending himself, Caswell turned to the Institute of Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. Scott Bullock, who defended him, says the judge pulled no punches.
"She saw Russ as someone who did all he could do to try to prevent drug crimes on his property," Bullock said. "And she recognized he had no control of what people did behind closed doors out of the view of him and his employees."
Judge Dein faulted the government for engaging in "gross exaggeration," misstatements of fact and "highly derogatory argument."
"Punishing Mr. Caswell by forfeiting the Motel obviously would not punish those engaged in the criminal conduct," Judge Dein wrote.
During the four-day trial in November, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz released a statement saying her office wanted to send a message by going after the motel. But just up the street from the mom-and-pop-run Motel Caswell, the Motel 6, Walmart and Home Depot had all experienced a similar rate of drug crimes, according to Caswell’s attorneys, without the government going after them.
"I mean, the government's got all the money in the world to throw at these things and they just bully people is what it is," Caswell said. "And it's completely wrong. It's just not American."
The idea to go after the Motel Caswell sprung from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the trial revealed. The DEA has an agent who testified his job is to seek out targets for forfeiture by watching television news and reading newspapers. When he finds a property where drug crimes occur he goes to the Registry of Deeds. Finding the Motel Caswell had no mortgage and was worth almost $1.5 million, the DEA teamed up with the Tewksbury Police, who were offered 80 percent of the taking, the agent testified.
After widespread criticism following the death of defendant Aaron Swartz, Ortiz has been dealt a second major setback in two weeks. Bullock accuses her of abusing a draconian power of civil forfeiture.
"This case epitomizes what an aggressive U.S. attorney wielding these laws can do to a small and even innocent property owner like Russ Caswell," Bullock said.
The U.S. attorney's office says it is reviewing the decision. Having lost its effort to take the Motel Caswell, the government is now obligated to pay for both Caswell's legal expenses and the legal work of the Institute of Justice, which will come to at least $500,000.
This post was updated with Morning Edition feature content.
This program aired on January 24, 2013.
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