Today was day one of the trial of United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. (the Motel Caswell) in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts. Russ Caswell, claimant, is represented by the Institute for Justice (Here’s IJ’s backgrounder on the Caswell case). This account comes of the trial comes to us from Cecil Williams, who was in attendance:
I arrived before the courtroom doors were unlocked. After call to order the first order of business was argument about a particular state’s witness that initially the judge kept using terms like ‘irrelevant’ to describe him/her but decided to hold a final decision on the witness’s inclusion until later. The opening statement by the Government was clear and lucid and presented ‘toastmaster’ style while that of the Plaintiff was more statement of the facts about Mr. Caswell in plain but subdued tones.
The prosecutor’s case seems to hinge on an assertion that the motel owners and staff did not do everything possible to prevent the occurrence of crime on the property – re: no or insufficient lights, security cameras for common areas, no-rent list of suspected druggies, staff training.The Plaintiff’s statement focused on the need for guest privacy and that the motel aided and abetted police action openly and freely – e.g., renting rooms no charge for police surveillance purposes, sharing registration information, etc. and was innocently caught in a war between police and druggies.As for the eventual outcome of this trial, my initial impression is that the fact that Mr. Caswell faces a trial implies that the Government will ultimately win. What is notable is that this case is tried in Left Liberal Massachusetts and the Plaintiff asserted that it ‘exceeds’ the historical limit of the First District Court precedent (paraphrased). If the Government wins this case then there will be a rash of such property confiscation incidents nation wide.Recess was after opening statements and I left feeling nauseous at what I had witnessed.
The government wants to take Caswell’s motel, not because Caswell is guilty of dealing drugs or other crimes, but because some of his guests broke the law. A legal brief cites 15 drug crimes, including distributing heroin and manufacturing methamphetamine, that prompted police to arrest Caswell guests from 1994 to 2008.“We’re trying to make the property and the location safe,” said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.Trip Advisor reviews make Motel Caswell sound like the place I stayed at when I covered the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. One cab driver heard the name and insisted I pay cash.
DiIorio-Sterling noted that the government had pushed for a settlement that would have required Caswell to pay $167,500 and agree to sell or shutter the property. He refused.
Bullock assures me that the Main Street motel isn’t seedy, just the cheapest room in town. “We get a cross-section of society,” Caswell told me.
The legal point, said Bullock: An innkeeper should not be held responsible for “transient guests that occasionally use the motel for illicit drug activity behind closed doors.”
The Institute for Justice has experience with governments going after the property of people without the means to fight back. The institute represented working-class homeowner Susette Kelo after the town of New London, Conn., tried to seize her house under eminent domain for a private waterfront development project. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court infamously ruled 5-4 for New London.
In a righteous dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, wrote that if governments can kick people out of their homes for economic development, “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
Voila. Caswell’s father built the one-story, 56-room motel in 1955. Because it’s family run with no mortgage, said Bullock, a seizure would deliver “pure profit for law enforcement.” The Tewksbury police stand to pocket 80 percent of the $1 million or more Caswell believes the property is worth.
The government doesn’t have to prove Caswell was a party to or even knew what was going on in guests’ $56 rooms.
In 1999, Congress passed a law to curb civil asset forfeiture abuses, citing a Houston Chronicle editorial that argued, “Good people should not have to fear property seizure because they operate business in high-crime areas. Nor should they forfeit their property because they have failed to do the work of law enforcement.”
And yet, it’s happening all over again. Quoth Bullock, “I think it’s fair to say they expected Mr. Caswell not to fight this all the way.”