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U.S. judge rules government cannot seize family-owned motel

By Karen Freifeld

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a victory for property rights, a U.S. judge shot down a government effort to seize a family-owned motel in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

The Justice Department sought forfeiture of the Motel Caswell, introducing evidence of its connection to 15 drug-related incidents between 1994 and 2008.

Russell Caswell, 69, and his wife, Patricia, 71, own the motel through a trust and he runs it. There is no contention anyone from the family has ever been involved in criminal activity, the judge said.

The government "has not met its burden in providing that the property is forfeitable," Magistrate Judge Judith Dein of U.S. District Court in Massachusetts wrote in a decision Thursday dismissing the civil forfeiture action.

"Punishing Mr. Caswell by forfeiting the motel obviously would not punish those engaged in the criminal conduct."

Dein, who heard the case in November without a jury, noted the government identified a limited number of incidents spread over years, none of which involved the motel owner or employees.

The judge said no one took steps to work with Caswell to reduce drug activity at the motel. She added that no effort was made to even warn about the possibility of forfeiture before the case was filed.

The case "is easily distinguishable from other cases where the 'draconian' result of forfeiture was found to be appropriate," the judge wrote in her decision.

The U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts said it was disappointed in the ruling and weighing options for appeal.

The 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," the office said in a statement.

The 56-room budget motel rents out about 14,000 rooms a year, serving semi-permanent and transient guests.

The ruling "is a huge win for property owners everywhere," said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, in Arlington, Virginia, a libertarian law firm that represented the motel with local counsel.

Sheth said the case exposed the injustices of forfeiture actions, which she said are routinely brought against innocent people.

"Civil forfeiture laws provide a direct financial incentive for law enforcement to seize and take people's property," she said. "Hopefully this decision will prevent prosecutorial overreach."

The case is United State of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 09-11635JGD.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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