Writs of Assistance - Search Warrants
Writs of Assistance Definition: The English Parliament created the writ of assistance during the seventeenth century. Writs of Assistance were search warrants issued by superior provincial courts to assist the British government in enforcing anti-smuggling provisions, trade and Navigation Laws in Colonial America. Writs of Assistance, or search warrants, authorized customhouse officers, with the assistance of a sheriff, justice of the peace, or constable, to search any house for smuggled goods without specifying either the house or the goods. And in a case of resistance, to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other packages (see provisions in 1767 Townshend Acts).
Reason why Writs of Assistance were Introduced
As the American colonies grew in importance and profitability the British government attempted to make American trade profitable to British merchants by interfering in the government of the colonies. The colonists disobeyed the navigation laws and Britain 'turned a blind eye' due to its policy of Salutary Neglect. However, the benevolent period of Salutary Neglect all changed after the French and Indian War (aka Seven Years War 1755-1763) when the British were left with a massive war debt. To pay the war debt the British ended their policy of Salutary Neglect in the colonies. The British intended to end illegal trading, enforce the Navigation Acts and impose new taxes and the Writs of Assistance, or search warrants, would help them to do this.
The Use of Writs of Assistance
The British reversed their policy of Salutary Neglect but it was much easier to order the laws to be carried out than it was to implement them. It was almost impossible for the customs officers to prevent goods from being smuggled into the colonies. And equally difficult to seize them. The custom officers therefore asked the judges to give them writs of assistance to search the premises of suspects.
Writs of Assistance were open to Abuse
Custom officials used the Writs of Assistance to investigate colonial merchants who were suspected of Smuggling goods into the country.
- Writs of Assistance, or search warrants, were issued to Custom Officers upon request
- Custom Officers were not required to produce any evidence on which the application was based - they merely had to have suspicions that smuggling and the non payment of taxes was associated with a particular person
- Writs of Assistance therefore enabled British Custom Officers to enter any colonist's home without giving any warning, any cause and any reason
- The Writs of Assistance were permanent and even transferable - a writ holder could assign them to another
- A Writ of Assistance could be used at any time, day or night
- The Custom Officers were able to demand support from all constables, peace officers and nearby subjects to help customs officials to carry out a search
- If colonists resisted, customs officials were authorized by the Writ of Assistance to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other packages that might lead to incriminating evidence
- Neither the Custom Officer nor the searchers were not responsible for any damage they caused
The Writs of Assistance gave Custom Officers the opportunity to abuse the system and harass colonists. Armed with a Writs of Assistance a Customs official could go to the house of a man he did not like and search it from attic to cellar, turn everything upside down and break open doors and trunks at anytime, day or night.
James Otis and the Writs of Assistance
James Otis Jr. (February 5, 1725 – May 23, 1783) was a Harvard educated lawyer and in 1756 was appointed to the prestigious post of advocate general for the Admiralty Court in the colony of Massachusetts. The role of advocate general was the highest official post for a lawyer in the colony and it would have been part of his job to prosecute the smugglers. His father, James Otis Sr, was also a prominent lawyer and militia officer. James Otis Sr had been promised the position of Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but the position went instead to Thomas Hutchinson. The James Otis Jr. resigned from his position of of advocate general. His resignation enabled him to opposed the granting of the Writs of Assistance.