Writs of Assistance Act

Writs of assistance were court-issued general warrants that permitted English customs officers to search for contraband within the ships, warehouses, and domiciles of suspected smugglers. Parliament first authorized the writs in 1660 and made them permanent in the 1662 Act for Preventing Frauds. A 1696 law extended the power to employ writs of assistance to customs officials in the American colonies, helping them to enforce the royal Navigation Acts. Customs officials in the colonies rarely requested writs of assistance, however, until the Seven Years War (1756– 1763), when the superior courts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts issued them to help officials enforce British laws prohibiting trade with enemy nations—France and Spain, in this case.

In 1760, Massachusetts merchants sued royal customs collectors for abusing the writs, accusing them of trespass. In the following year their advocate, James Otis, testified in Massachusetts Superior Court against the constitutionality of the statutes themselves, arguing that they arbitrarily infringed on the privacy and property rights of British subjects. The court upheld the statutes’ legitimacy, and the issue lay dormant for several years. In 1767, the Townshend Acts authorized customs officers throughout the colonies to use writs of assistance to enforce the collection of import duties. The law also provided that such writs could only be issued by the supreme court of each American province, and in nine colonies, judges, following the logic of James Otis’s argument, routinely rejected applications for the writs as violations of the British Constitution. In the 1770s, five states outlawed them in their constitutions, and in 1789 the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited federal courts from issuing general warrants and officials from engaging in warrantless searches.

DAVID A. NICHOLS

References and Further Reading

  • Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Coming of the Revolution, 1763–1775. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
  • Smith, Maurice Henry. The Writs of Assistance Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Act for Customs Search Warrants, 1660, 12 Car. 2, c. 19
  • Act for Preventing Frauds and Regulating Abuses in His Majesty’s Customs, 1662, 13 and 14 Car. 2, c. 11
  • Act for Preventing Frauds and Regulating Abuses in the Plantation Trade, 1696, 7 and 8 Gul. 3, c. 22

See also General Warrants; Otis, James

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