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Court Rejects Forfeiture Of Motel For Customers' Conduct

If you own a motel, should it be taken away from you because of what your customers do in the space you provide them? Federal and local officials in Tewksbury, Mass., said yes; the Institute for Justice said no; and today, a federal magistrate judge agreed with IJ, sparing the Caswell Motel.

The business’s owners weren’t accused of any crime, or any wrongdoing—unless you count running a motel as wrongdoing. But running a motel—a business that provides a small, private bit of space—was exactly what the government didn’t like about the Caswell family’s activity. The rest of the problem, from the government’s perspective, was that a number of the Caswells’ customers had used the motel for drug activity.

But you can’t run a business—at least not a business that depends on being able to provide privacy—if you are held responsible for the customer activity that the nature of your business requires you not to see. And customers generally prefer—to put it mildly!—not to have motel owners monitoring what they do in their motel rooms.

In a 59-page opinion, Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein reviews the case at length, recounting the various incidents that took place at the Caswell Motel. What they add up to is this: Sometimes hotel customers use, sell, or even make drugs, and sometimes they get caught. But a hotel owner who has no way of knowing in advance which few of the thousands of strangers who rent his rooms will turn out to violate the drug laws there cannot lose his property merely because a few customers violate the law. He may be required to cooperate with the police, but he is not required to be a completely effective policeman himself.

If he were, it would be impossible to run a hotel without forfeiting it.

Congratulations to the Institute for Justice on another victory in the struggle for business rights.

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