He soon learned that the federal civil forfeiture law requires property owners to prove their innocence, that they either “had no knowledge of the criminal activity; or . . . upon learning of the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture, did all that could reasonably be expected to terminate such use of the property.”
What constitutes “reasonable” remains one of the issues to be decided. Caswell said he installed security cameras, makes photocopies of customers’ identifications and records their vehicle registration plates, and has provided motel rooms to Tewksbury police conducting surveillance during investigations.
The Institute for Justice says it has been calling attention to abuses of the civil forfeiture law for years. In 1986, the year after the US Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture fund was created, the account took in $93.7 million, according to the institute. Today the fund, which holds the proceeds from properties forfeited under the law, holds more than $1.6 billion, the institute said.
Between 2000 and 2008, equitable sharing payments from the Department of Justice to state and local law enforcement agencies doubled, going from about $200 million annually to $400 million per year, the Institute for Justice states in a 2010 report.
Caswell said he had been planning to spruce up the rooms when the case began. But the government has placed the equivalent of a lien on the property, and he had to spend $100,000 on legal fees before the Institute for Justice took up his case last year.
“It’s unbelievable what they’re trying to do to me,” Caswell said of the US government. “It’s like something you’d expect to see in Russia. They’re the ones who failed to keep the drugs out of this country, this state, this town, and now they’re trying to profit from their failure.”
Brenda J. Buote may be reached at email@example.com.