Government oversteps in Mass.

May 20, 2012


— Russ Caswell, 68, is bewildered: “What country are we in?” He and his wife Pat are ensnared in a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding in Orwellian language.

This town’s police department is conniving with the federal government to circumvent Massachusetts law — which is less permissive than federal law — in order to seize his livelihood and retirement asset. In the lawsuit titled “United States of America vs. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts,” the government is suing an inanimate object, the motel Caswell’s father built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million. The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. They are being persecuted by two governments eager to profit from what is antiseptically called the “equitable sharing” of the fruits of civil forfeiture, a process of government enrichment that often is indistinguishable from robbery.

The Merrimack River Valley near the New Hampshire border has had more downs than ups since the 19th century, when the nearby towns of Lowell and Lawrence were centers of America’s textile industry. In the 1960s, the area briefly enjoyed a high-tech boom. Caswell’s “budget” motel, too, has seen better days. In its sixth decade the motel hosts tourists, some workers on extended stays and some elderly people who call it home. The 56 rooms rent for $56 a night or $285 a week.

Since 1994, about 30 motel customers have been arrested on drug dealing charges. Even if those police figures are accurate — the police have a substantial monetary incentive to exaggerate — these 30 episodes involved less than five one-hundredths of 1 percent of the 125,000 rooms Caswell has rented over those more than 6,700 days. Yet this is the government’s excuse for impoverishing the Caswells by seizing this property, which is their only significant source of income and all of their retirement security.

The government says the rooms were used to “facilitate” a crime. It does not say the Caswells knew or even that they were supposed to know what was going on in all their rooms all the time. Civil forfeiture law treats citizens worse than criminals, requiring them to prove their innocence — to prove they did everything possible to prevent those rare crimes from occurring in a few of those rooms. What counts as possible remains vague. The Caswells voluntarily installed security cameras, they photocopy customers’ identifications and record their license plates, and turn the information over to the police, who have never asked the Caswells to do more.

The Caswells are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. IJ explains that civil forfeiture is a proceeding in which property is said to have acted wrongly. This was useful long ago against pirates, who might be out of reach but whose ill-gotten gains could be seized. The Caswells, however, are not pirates.

Rather, they are victims of two piratical governments that, IJ argues, are violating the U.S. Constitution twice. They are violating the Eighth Amendment, which has been construed to forbid “excessive fines” that deprive individuals of their livelihoods. And the federal “equitable sharing” program violates the 10th Amendment by vitiating state law, thereby enabling Congress to compel the states to adopt Congress’ policies where states possess a reserved power and primary authority — in the definition and enforcement of the criminal law.

“Equitable sharing” — the consensual splitting of ill-gotten loot by the looters — reeks of the moral hazard that exists in situations in which incentives are for perverse behavior. To see where this leads, read IJ’s scalding report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” (http://ow.ly/aYME1), a sickening litany of law enforcement agencies padding their budgets and financing boondoggles by, for example, smelling, or imagining to smell, or pretending to smell, marijuana in cars they covet.

None of this is surprising to Madisonians, which all sensible Americans are. James Madison warned (in Federalist 48) that government power “is of an encroaching nature.” If unresisted, it produces iniquitous sharing of other people’s property.  

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    


cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

While not strictly on point with Will's column, the ghost of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, which epitomizes judicial surrender to collective government greed, still haunts the Northeast.

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 11 months ago

The government is out of control...James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights, we need you more than ever!

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

"If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy."

"It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad."

"It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood."

"Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty."

"The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty."


Crazy_Larry 5 years, 11 months ago

40 years of failure and no end in sight...The War On Drugs!

James Madison quotes: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

rtwngr 5 years, 11 months ago

Eric Holder and the DOJ would rather pursue these people than turn over documents from the "Fast and Furious" program. Big government run amok.

tomatogrower 5 years, 11 months ago

I doubt if this hotel will even come close to paying back the money spent on drug enforcement and defending this in court. And if the owners weren't involved in the drug problem the government would probably lose.

What should happen is for the city to buy the property at a nice cost, so the owners could get out from under this horrible place, which doesn't sound like something I would like to run in my old age. Then they could find someplace for the elderly people living there, who aren't involved in the drugs, then tear down the whole mess, and sell it to some apartment developer. Yes, the drugs will just go somewhere else, but the people who would probably rather not live around it, can escape.

Then this stupid war on drugs should be turned around to finding ways of keeping people off drugs and getting them treatment if they do drugs. Dry up the demand, maybe the supply will dry up too. Some drug dealers would probably make some good entrepreneurs, except they chose the wrong business. Maybe turn them around and send them to business school. Let's start asking why someone would do something that harms them? Why would someone become a drug dealer, running the risk of prison? That's the real way to solve the drug problem. It may not be any cheaper, but it sure would be more pleasant, and might solve some other problems.

tomatogrower 5 years, 11 months ago

Of course, you don't agree with my solution. That would be using tax dollars. Besides, drug dealers are just good little capitalist, aren't they. And we know you support capitalism, no matter who gets hurt. Dod eat dog.

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 11 months ago

Sometimes, I support government. Sometimes, not so much. I think it's so convoluted now, that the best thing would be to completely dismantle the federal government and start over.

pace 5 years, 11 months ago

Your contention is different from the owners, the police and the federal authorities, that contention the owners were involved in the drug trade, which is the basis of your argument. Lala land for sure. If you are unaware of what is happening under these laws, don't just imagine it isn't happening, just google it. have someone read it to you.. lalalalal

Hooligan_016 5 years, 11 months ago

Seconded. Seems like there is a huge background to this story than cannot be covered in a 700 word column.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

Everyone knows that to prove that government of all kinds is always bad all that's required is to point out any defects, real or perceived, large or small, that might exist.

But, of course, that's not true of capitalism, which was created in pure perfection by god or someone named von Mises.

Mike Ford 5 years, 11 months ago

Guess what fast and furious strawmen....the Kelo case was done by your stooges..... Roberts, Scalia, Thomas......explain that with your denial......

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 11 months ago

The Supreme Courts is made up of people. Sure, they have a superiority complex, and are bought and paid for, but their people just the same. We need to dismantle the federal government and start anew. Then come back and do the same at the state and local level. I have now idea where or how to begin, but I'm inclined towards torches and pitchforks. These institutions do not even attempt to hide the corruption any more. It's time to crush them.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 11 months ago

I have no problem with your suggestion, other than I suspect that amid the turmoil, a few tens of millions will die and that from the rubble, there is no guarantee that what will emerge will be any better than what we have now. Other than that, torches and pitchforks it is.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 11 months ago

I have no problem with your suggestion, other than I suspect that amid the turmoil, a few tens of millions will die and that from the rubble, there is no guarantee that what will emerge will be any better than what we have now. Other than that, torches and pitchforks it is.

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, well don't let it happen again or the government will take your screen name and sell it to get an new coffeemaker for city hall.

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 11 months ago

Someone smarter than you and I will have to put it all back together again. As far as 10 or millions dying, so be it. We'll have to try to ensure that the right people die. Who are the 'right people' you may ask. Let's start with the slugs first, the people who've sold the country down the river (Wall Street bankers, lawyers, and law makers) and move up from there.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 11 months ago

You say you want a revolution, well, you know ..

But if you want money for people with minds that hate, All I can tell you brother is you have to wait.

If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

You say you want a revolution, well, you know.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Fist bump for the Beatles reference.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 11 months ago

Back at ya.
Is that the correct terminology for you young folks?

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

51 in September - thanks for the compliment.

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

30 drug-related crimes (presumably made by paying guests in the rooms they rented), the owners are not charged with any crime but the greedy local trash-bin of a government is going to take property from (I'm assuming) innocent people?

Given those circumstances, it's outrageous. There either has to be more to the story or something is very wrong in this country.

Richard Heckler 5 years, 11 months ago

Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.

I am speaking of the war on drugs.

And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure.

You see, I've learned first hand that the stakes just couldn't be higher.

And what is the impact of this policy?

It surely hasn't made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people...disproportionately people of color...who have caused little or no harm to others - wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effort - with no one held accountable for its failure.

But nothing will change until someone has the courage to stand up and say what so many politicians privately know: The war on drugs has failed.

That's where the Drug Policy Alliance comes in.

From Capitol Hill to statehouses to the media, DPA counters the hysteria of the drug war with thoughtful, accurate analysis about the true dangers of drugs, and by fighting for desperately needed on-the-ground reforms.

They are the ones who've played the lead role in making marijuana legally available for medical purposes in states across the country.

They oppose mandatory-minimum laws that force judges to send people like Nicole Richardson and Jan Warren to prison for years, with no regard for their character or the circumstances of their lives. And their work gets results: thanks in large part to DPA, New York has taken the first steps towards reforming the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws under which Jan was sentenced.

In these and so many other ways, DPA is working to end the war on drugs and replace it with a new drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights.

DPA is a leading, mainstream, respected and effective organization that gets real results.

But they can't do it alone.

That's why I urge you to send as generous a contribution as you possibly can to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Americans are paying too high a price in lives and liberty for a failing war on drugs about which our leaders have lost all sense of proportion. The Drug Policy Alliance is the one organization telling the truth. They need you with them every step of the way.

And that's the way it is.

Walter Cronkite


cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

The next time you cite Walter Cronkite, be sure to recall that he favored The United States of America ceding its independence to a system of World Government:


Of course, it's entirely possible that you agree with him.

deec 5 years, 11 months ago

That already happened. The global banking empire runs the world through their puppets in government.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

Has The United States of America legally ceded its independence to a World Government organization? If so, enlighten me. I must have missed it.

pace 5 years, 11 months ago

From the feds One of the most important provisions of asset forfeiture is the authorization to share federal forfeiture proceeds with cooperating state and local law enforcement agencies. The Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program serves not only to deter crime but also to provide valuable additional resources to state and local law enforcement agencies. As this is written, the Department of Justice has shared over $4.5 billion in forfeited assets with more than 8,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. One of several newspaper stories, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903480904576512253265073870.html Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime. So if you have a tenant that gets busted, and it doesn't have to be for a crime in the home, but if the home is his legal resident and he stored his stuff there, they can take the house. it has been done. if he works at your cafe, or stored stuff at your storage company, they can and have taken property. If his money is carried with yours by armor car, surprise, surprise, it is a win for the local and feds, free money free seizure. I don't understand how it passes the court as legal, but it is happening and it is growing.
NO presidential candidate, no congressperson, senator , governor is talking up citizen's rights, no anti fraud efforts that compare to the grab the money efforts.

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