Part 1 – What is a “Writ of Assistance?”

A Writ of Assistance was a general search warrant issued by English provincial courts.(159) They 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.(160) In the case of resistance, to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other packages as needed.(161) In essence, it was a blanket warrant in search for “Information”.(162)

Writs of assistance were open to abuse by officials for a wide range of reasons and ways:

  1. No requirement that British Custom Officers produce evidence on which an application for a “Writ of Assistance”, they merely needed to have suspicions that smuggling and the non-payment of taxes was associated with a particular person.(163) (Presumes guilty until proven innocent)
  2. Enabled British Custom Officers to enter any colonist’s home without giving any warning, any cause, or any reason.(164) (Today the U.S. Government goes directly to the companies that have all your information instead of raiding your home or informing you of their inquiry)
  3. Writs of Assistance were permanent and even transferable – one holder of a“writs of assistance” could assign them to another.(165) (The way “Prism” operates by continually gathering multiple data sets on all people effectively means the collection on everyone’s data is permanent and constant)
  4. A writ of assistance could be used at any time of day or night.(166) (No due process or warning of an investigation)
  5. British Custom Officers were able to demand support from all constables,peace officers, and/or nearby subjects to help customs officials carry out a search.(167) (Private – Public cooperation)
  6. If a colonist resisted, British Custom Officers were authorized to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other packages that might lead to incriminating evidence.(168) (No due process and presumes guilty until proven innocent)
  7. Neither the British Custom Officers nor anyone who gave assistance were responsible for any damage caused in the process. (169) (Amnesty was given to U.S. Telecommunications providers and technology companies for their contributions in the NSA surveillance programs)

Writs of Assistance opened up the opportunity for officials to abuse the system and harass colonists they did not like.(170) Wherein the original intent for their use was to curb smuggling and tax evasion on trade, their meaningful use morphed based on their lack of specificity to an event, place, person, or time.(171) This expansion of use helped set the stage for larger changes for the American Colonies which I will address in the next post regarding the road to revolution.

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