Justice has prevailed over an outrageous example of prosecutorial overreach.
The federal government has the right to seize property if on one or more occasions a drug crime occurred punishable by one or more years in prison and the owner condoned it or failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. (Think "parking lot with 40-50 crack dealers openly approaching every car every night" where the owners have repeatedly been approached by the police and hadn't taken reasonable steps to stop the activity, etc.)
The case was brought by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz who came under criticism following the suicide death of Aaron Swartz who was being prosecuted for hacking.
In this case, the government argued that Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Massachusetts should be seized because there were 15 drug arrests over a 15-year period.
Okay, let's not kid ourselves. This isn't the Four Seasons. This is one of those cheap extended stay motels ($56 a night) populated by transient construction workers, some long term residents, the occasional drug dealer and likely a few bedbugs.
To establish that the main owner, Mr. Caswell, didn't do enough to curtail illicit activity, the government pointed to a meeting "designed to convey drug crime-fighting information to area motel owners, and that the Caswells sent a 'desk clerk' because they 'couldn't even bother to drive the one mile down to the police station to meet with the police when expressly invited.'"
Here is what U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein ruled (PDF):
On the meeting:
• "This highly derogatory argument was not supported by a scintilla of evidence. Not only was the meeting apparently called because of auto thefts in the area, but there also was no evidence that the representative sent by the Motel was inappropriate in any way. If it was the Government's contention that Mr. Caswell "couldn't bother" to attend the meeting, it should have at least inquired what Mr. Caswell was doing at the time and/or established that the representative the Motel sent was inappropriate."
• Mr. Caswell sent a long-time trusted night clerk. None of the other hotels sent the owner either.
• "Faced with the complete lack of communication between the Tewksbury Police Department and the owners and employees of the Motel Caswell regarding steps that could be taken to deter drug crime at the Property, the Government has attempted to clothe a meeting on December 11, 2007 with far more significance than the evidence supported."
On the Motel and the Caswells:
• "Mr. Caswell has lived in Tewksbury since 1955. He is 69 years old, and a graduate of Tewksbury High School. Mr. Caswell has had no further formal education. He has had no training in law enforcement or investigation, or in drug detection." He does not use the internet or email.
• "The Caswells' home was included in the view taken by the court at the beginning of the case. It is modest, well-maintained, nicely furnished and decorated, and apparently the gathering place of a close-knit family, as evidenced by numerous family photos and memorabilia."
• "There is no contention in this case that anyone from the Caswell family has been involved in any criminal activity either at the Motel or elsewhere. It is undisputed that they are a law-abiding family. Mr. Caswell testified that he had never been charged with any crime in his life."
• "Based on the evidence presented and my observation of the witnesses during trial, I find that Mr. Caswell is appropriately concerned with the events that take place at the Motel and that he recognizes that it is in his interest and in the interest of his family to operate as safe an enterprise as possible."
• "There have not been any complaints by neighbors of the Motel to the Town concerning health or safety conditions at the Property."
• "Prior to initiating the instant forfeiture action, neither the Town of Tewksbury nor any other person or agency ever advised the Caswells that the Property may be subject to forfeiture."
Cooperation with the police:
• "The police also regularly drive through the Motel parking lots to check license plates to see if there are outstanding warrants, a practice they follow at other motels in town as well. No one from the Motel has ever interfered with these efforts by the police."
• "For at least 10 years, there has been a sign in the Motel lobby asking patrons to call the police if they see any suspicious activity. The sign was provided by the police department."
• "Motel employees, including maids and desk clerks, have called the police on a number of occasions to report suspicious activity."
• "Mr. Caswell has called the police on a number of occasions to report suspicious activity."
• "No Motel employees have interfered with or impeded any police investigations."
• "All witnesses testified that whenever the police have requested room keys for whatever purpose, keys have been provided by the Motel staff without any problem."
• Similarly, it has been the Motel's policy to provide free rooms to law enforcement for stakeouts whenever requested.
• The police have also conducted surveillance on the Property without interference.
• The police regularly review the registration cards of guests. The cards are kept behind the front desk, and the police apparently feel free to walk behind the desk to check the cards whenever they want. The cards include the name of the guest and the license plate of their car."
• And on and on and on...
• "As noted above, the Government provided no statistical information about the level or type of crimes at the Motel Caswell. Instead, it elected to introduce information about 15 specific drug-related incidents during the period of 1994 to 2008.
• "It should be noted that during this 14 year period, the Motel Caswell rented out approximately 196,000 rooms."
• "After reviewing the scores of cases cited by the parties, I find this case to be notable in several critical respects, including (1) the Government has identified only a limited number of isolated qualifying drug-related incidents spread out over the course of more than a decade, none of which involve the Motel owner or employees; and (2) the witnesses unanimously confirmed that no efforts were undertaken to work with the Motel owner to try and reduce drug crimes at the Property prior to the institution of the forfeiture action, nor was any warning given as to the possibility of forfeiture prior to suit being filed. As a result, the instant case is easily distinguishable from other cases where the "draconian" result of forfeiture was found to be appropriate."
The decision is 59 pages long and I have watered it down quite a bit. If you are so inclined, I urge you to read the entire thing.
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