Mass. motel owner fights move to seize property
BOSTON (AP) — 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.
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 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.
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."