Jacob Sullum
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This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who said he read about the Motel Caswell in a news report and found that the property, which the Caswells own free and clear, had an assessed value of $1.3 million. So Kelley approached the Tewksbury Police Department with an "equitable sharing" deal: The feds would seize the property and sell it, and the cops would get up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Under Massachusetts law, by contrast, police would have received only half the loot, and forfeiture may have been harder. State law says a seized property has to be used not just to "facilitate" a drug crime but "in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances," which suggests a stronger connection.

The Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing the Caswells, argues that the federal "equitable sharing" program helps police evade state laws aimed at preventing forfeiture abuses. A 2011 study reported in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the stricter a state's forfeiture law, the more likely police are to enlist federal help.

Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, says taking away the Caswells' livelihood and retirement security sends an "important deterrent message" to "others who may turn a blind eye to crime occurring at their place of business." But to anyone troubled by the guilty-until-proven-innocent rules of civil forfeiture, it looks a lot like legalized larceny.

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Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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