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Go Forth on the 4th to Celebrate the Fourth | 102 comments | Create New Account
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Go Forth on the 4th to Celebrate the Fourth
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, June 19 2013 @ 05:49 AM EDT
Do you know about James Otis, his struggle against the British Empire, and the making of the Fourth Amendment? A brilliant, young attorney, Otis became practically obsessed with what he viewed as a profound injustice visited upon the American colonists by their British rulers: the writs of assistance.

Writs of assistance were essentially general warrants. They allowed British soldiers to raid and search homes based on no suspicion whatsoever of criminal activity. Any soldier could violate the sanctity of anyone’s person or home. The British foot soldiers didn’t have to have any reason whatsoever for these searches. The writs of assistance were extreme violations of the basic privacy and property rights of Americans, and the American revolutionaries loathed them – no one more eloquently or passionately than Otis.

[...]

Specific warrants describing the people, places or things to be searched, and sworn by an affirmation, are legitimate and legal, Otis said. But general warrants, those that do not require any specific information or targeting – those warrants that enable the government to search at will – are illegal. He said it like this:

Your Honors will find in the old books concerning the office of a justice of the peace precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But in more modern books you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner I rely on it, that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. I say I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted…

Although Otis lost the case, his rhetoric profoundly altered the course of history. It just so happened that a young John Adams was sitting in the courtroom on the day Otis railed against the writs. That same John Adams would go on to pen the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment of which would serve as inspiration for the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Kade Crockford, ACLU

---

James Otis, Wikipedia

[ Reply to This | Parent | # ]

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