The following is a press release from the Braintree law firm Schlossberg, LLC.
Since the decision by a federal judge (described below), U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz told the Boston Herald that she is considering an appeal, telling the paper in a statement that "This case was strictly a law-enforcement effort to crack down on what was seen as a pattern of using the motel to further the commission of drug crimes for nearly three decades."
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After a highly-scrutinized, bitterly-fought, three-year federal forfeiture battle with the United States Government, Braintree-based law firm Schlossberg, LLC today announced that it recently received the court’s decision that its client, second-generation Tewksbury motel owner Russell Caswell, will maintain ownership of the Motel Caswell.
On Thursday, January 24, 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein dismissed U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s long-running seizure attempts after a four day trial in November 2012. This precedent-setting ruling, if followed by additional federal districts, could have wider implications; making it more difficult for the government to bring forfeiture proceedings based on the actions of third parties unrelated to property owners.
On September 29, 2009, Caswell received federal forfeiture papers citing several drug-related arrests on the property over a span of 14 years as the basis for forfeiture. Caswell, having no criminal history, contacted Attorneys Michael O’Neil, George W. Skogstrom and Tiffany Pawson of Schlossberg, LLC After more than two years of contentious litigation, O’Neil contacted the Institute for Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm in Washington D.C. After reviewing the case, the Institute for Justice agreed to partner with Schlossberg on the case.
“The egregious facts in the case, including the fact that not one police officer or town official ever claimed that Russ Caswell knew about these crimes before they occurred (crimes allegedly committed inside rented rooms), was particularly compelling in helping us establish Russ’s status as an ‘innocent owner’ under the forfeiture law” said George W. Skogstrom, Jr., Litigation Chair at Schlossberg, LLC.
“In typical forfeiture cases the property owners are connected to the crimes giving rise to forfeiture” said O’Neil, who has been practicing law for more than ten years. “It’s been a real uphill battle, but thanks to Mr. Caswell’s perseverance and the dedication of our lawyers and those at the Institute for Justice, we were able to get fantastic results at the trial.”
Meaning that the draconian result of forfeiture was not appropriate, the court ruled that
“…a limited number of isolated qualifying drug incidents spread out over the course of more than a decade, none of which involve the Motel owner or employees and . . .no efforts were undertaken to work with the Motel owner to try and reduce drug crimes . . . nor was any warning given as to the possibility of forfeiture.”
The court also ruled that there was “…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” and that, consequently, Caswell has “met his burden of proving he is the innocent owner of the Property. ”
The defense found that there were more drug-related crimes at nearby businesses. However, those businesses were owned by large corporations, making them difficult targets for the Government; whereas the Motel Caswell, with no mortgage and an estimated $1.6 million value, made the privately-owned motel an attractive target. Caswell’s lawyers also argued that he was not responsible for motel guests’ behavior.
In her decision, Judge Dein noted that neither Caswell nor his employees were aware of any arrests until after the fact and that Caswell had taken all reasonable steps to prevent drug crime, including notifying the authorities of suspicious activity, but that he was not obliged to act as a “substitute police force”.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office was trying to make my motel look like the Wild West and were making mountains out of molehills,” said Caswell. “Everyone at Schlossberg could see the toll it was taking on me and my family – financially and emotionally. Michael even went to see my wife who was in the hospital with a serious heart condition at the time. Schlossberg and the Institute for Justice really had our best interests in mind.”
The decision comes on the heels of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz making headlines for her role in the January 11, 2013 death of Reddit founder Aaron Swartz. After Ortiz charged him with four counts of felony, Swartz committed suicide in the weeks leading up to his trial.
The Motel Caswell decision has garnered coverage in many local and national media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Esquire Magazine.