Aaron Swartz and Motel Caswell: Book ends to prosecutorial reform?
A judge this week dismissed a drug forfeiture case involving a motel owner. The prosecutor, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, is also facing criticism for her role in the prosecution of Internet hacker Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this month.
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On Jan. 16, Ms. Ortiz released a statement about her office's role in the Swartz case.Skip to next paragraph
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"I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office’s prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life," Ms. Ortiz wrote. "I must, however, make clear that this office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."
In the Motel Caswell case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein on Thursday dismissed the government’s forfeiture action against owner Russ Caswell, ruling that Mr. Caswell took reasonable steps to prevent crime while "trying to eke out an income from a business located in a drug-infested area that posed great risks to the safety of him and his family."
“The Government’s resolution of the crime problem should not be to simply take his Property,” Ms. Dein wrote.
Federal agents first tried to seize Caswell's property in 2009, citing drug seizure laws that were triggered after numerous drug busts at the motel. Caswell's lawyers said the motel owner couldn't be held responsible for the actions of his guests, and even conjectured in court that the government intended to grab the property more for the $1 million it could fetch on the open market.
“It’s bullying by the government," Mr. Caswell told the Boston Herald. "You work for all your life to pay for something and these people come along and think it’s theirs. It’s just wrong. The average person can’t afford to fight this.”
In fact, one member of Congress, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, has filed legislation that she calls "Aaron's Law," which would limit prosecutorial power to level felony charges in computer fraud and abuse cases that amount to contract breaches.
“I’ll make a risky statement here: Over-prosecution is a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing,” Mr. Issa told the Huffington Post on Dec. 16. “It is a tool of question. If someone is genuinely guilty of something and you bring them up on charges, that’s fine. But throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they’ll plea to a 'lesser included' is a technique that I think can sometimes be inappropriately used.”
Such "scrutiny is a good thing," Mr. Brown told the Herald. "After all, it is a public office. What’s going on here is a lot of things are happening at the same time that I think are making the public and the bar feel that maybe accountability and transparency is called for at the U.S. Attorney’s office.”