Writ of assistance
a general search warrant


Writ of assistance was a general search warrant that permitted customs officers to enter premises in the daytime, using force if necessary, to search for goods imported illegally. The writs did not specify the place to be searched and were good for an unlimited time. But they expired six months after the death of a king. Writs were authorized for English customs officials in 1662. Courts in the American Colonies first issued them in the 1750's. The colonists strongly criticized the writs in the years before the Revolutionary War in America (1775-1783).

In 1761, James Otis of Boston tried to persuade the Superior Court of Massachusetts that writs of assistance violated "the fundamental principles of law." He failed. The controversy over such writs led to the prohibition of general warrants in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Contributor: Pauline Maier, Ph.D., William R. Kenan, Jr., Prof. of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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