While Bookworm is away at Disneyland, she’s tasked me to fill in for her. I am going to try and do so without any mention of the names Trump, Cruz, Sanders or Hildabeast (more than once). Instead this will be a historical post, but one that I hope resonates still today.
I’ve been researching the causes of the American Revolution, and while there were several, arguably the fuse of the American Revolution was first lit in 1756 Boston, when and where a corrupt government customs official began to make use of a rare practice — a general search warrant coupled with a “Writ of Assistance” — to fill his pockets. It raised the issue of the government’s power to search without any reasonable suspicion of a crime having been committed — essentially a fishing expedition easily abused to harass, punish or, in this instance, plunder — done without oversight by a magistrate.
The legal background was that, in 1662, in the wake of England’s Civil War and with its finances depleted, Parliament passed a bill giving the Court of the Exchequer, a uniquely English court that deals only with debts to the government, a right in England to issue a Writ of Assistance to its custom’s agents. This Writ authorized the agents to search anywhere — including private homes and other properties, locked or not — if the agents thought they might find items illegally imported or on which customs were not paid. No magistrate or judge provided oversight in individual cases. Such general warrants under a Writ of Assistance would remain valid for the life of the King or Queen in power when such warrant was issued.
This was extended to the colonies, by very imprecise language, by an Act of 1696. This law allowed “Courts of the Exchequer” in the colonies to issue such general search warrants. This should have raised an immediate red flag since there were no Courts of the Exchequer in the colonies, but as the power went unused in the colonies for six decades, no one contested it.