Writ of assistance is a written order granted by a court that instructs the local law enforcement to assist in performing some task. Most famously, writs of assistance were used by customs officials to search for smuggled goods, as they also granted the bearer rights to search someone’s property without specifying the reason.
A writ of assistance was a document issued by a British court that functioned as a general search warrant that allowed the bearer to search any property at any time, and it did not expire until six months after the monarch’s death. These orders allowed the bearer to employ the assistance of local law enforcement officials, such as sheriffs or constables and could be entrusted to anyone. This document thus had immense power and was used with impunity to carry out unreasonable searches on private property to find and seize contraband.
Writs of assistance are a significant part of American history. The British customs officials used these writs to invade others’ private property, which was seen as unlawful and unjust by the Americans. The legality of these documents was first publicly disputed in 1761 by James Otis, who represented Boston merchants. In his speech, he claimed they were an instrument of arbitrary power that had no place in British common law. However, Britain asserted their legality, and they were used in the following years. The Townshend Acts that burdened the Colonial citizens with additional taxes also promoted the use of these acts and thus became one of the significant points of contention in pre-Revolutionary America. The Bill of Rights eventually outlawed the use of writs of assistance.
Interestingly, these warrants are still in use in the United Kingdom. Just as in the XVIII century, they empower the bearer to enter any premises at any time and destroy any lock, window, container, or other obstruction. However, they can only do that if they have reasonable suspicion that illicit goods are being held on the premises and will be removed or destroyed before a more specialized warrant can be obtained. This stipulation did not exist in Colonial times.