Libertarian writer Wendy McElroy provides a concise overview of civil asset forfeiture laws in the United States with the recent Motel Caswell seizure in Massachusetts as the key example. Her conclusion is worth quoting extensively:
Not only does civil forfeiture create abuses, as [Institute for Justice President Chip] Mellor points out, it itself is an abuse — an abuse of the very concept of justice. If civil forfeiture is carried to its logical conclusion, every single motel and hotel in America could be confiscated by one government or another.
So why the Caswells and not the local Holiday Inn? In the answer lies another moral of their story. On the Judge Napolitano show, Russell Caswell exclaimed that he and his wife “always worked with the police as much as we can.” Elsewhere he protested,
“It is un-American that I am being treated like a criminal when my family has always worked with the police to quickly report and resolve any crime that has occurred on our property. Rather than work with us, the federal government and our local police department have blindsided us and are working to take everything we’ve worked so hard to earn.”
The moral? Be very careful about reporting a crime to the police. You never know when you are turning yourself in. Or, rather, you may be turning in your property to be punished for its criminal acts.
The Caswell case also gives lie to the claim by U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, who is prosecuting the Camp Zoe forfeiture, that his “office is capable of distinguishing between a music festival with incidental drug use and a drug festival with incidental music.” Perhaps individual offices are capable of making that distinction, but they don’t actually make it. After all, the federal government is trying to take the Caswells’ motel even though only an incidental proportion of their guests have been connected with drug activity.
The reason prosecutors don’t make that distinction is that the law doesn’t require them to; a motel where someone smoked a single joint could be subject to forfeiture just as much as a drug lord’s house. Federal forfeiture laws are so lax that almost any piece of private property is fair game, and as long as that’s the case, we are all imperiled.