While I was in Rockford, I stayed in a motel where it seemed to me that some of the guests were selling or using drugs. According to current laws, what that means is that greedy law enforcement officials could simply seize the motel from its owners.

Such things happen all the time, and Reason has an article about a recent example:

Caswell, whose father built the motel in 1955, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and the local Motel 6, Fairfield Inn, Walmart, and Home Depot have had similar problems with drug activity. But the government argues that Caswell was “willfully blind” to drug dealing and could have done more to prevent it.

Caswell, who has been running the motel since 1983, says he has no way of knowing what his customers are doing behind closed doors. He has always cooperated with the police, calling them to report suspicious activity and offering them free rooms for surveillance and sting operations.

In 2009 he got his reward: a forfeiture notice. Police had never suggested additional steps he could take to discourage crime or warned him that the motel—which supports him, his mother, his wife, their son, their daughter-in-law, and their granddaughter—could be at risk.

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.

I agree. And George F. Will has been all over the Caswell case for some time.

There is something Orwellian about being held responsible for the actions of others absent any evidence of conspiracy. If a hotel owner is to be held responsible for the conduct of occupants, then why isn’t a restaurant owner responsible for the conduct of his patrons? And why am I not responsible for the conduct of my neighbors? The answer is, simply, because I am not them, and I am not the one doing what they do.

However, let us for a moment assume that owners of property are to be held responsible for the actions of their tenants. In any large city, drugs are often used and dealt in public housing projects, are they not? So why aren’t these properties seized under asset forfeiture laws? Similarly, drugs are sold and used in jails and prisons all over the country — often with the connivance of corrupt guards who are never fired. When was the last time a public housing project or a prison was taken away under asset forfeiture laws? Such things don’t happen, because government is always exempt from the laws enforced against others.

So the government can seize these motels willy-nilly and then rent the rooms to whomever they want, while never having to worry about asset forfeiture.

Such a deal!