A Writ of Assistance is a legal writ that serves as a general search warrant.
Unlike the warrant, it is generally open-ended, and requires all parties to supports the officer to who it was issued. Its normal use is in support of customs and excise inspections. The writ authorizes an officer to search any person or place and does not expire.
These have become an issue in (Canada) where they are usually issued to customs and (RCMP) officers to enforce drug and import laws. Controversy surrounds their use to seize pornographic and gay rights literature at the Canadian border.
While constitutionally prohibited by United States Bill of Rights, there is currently opposition to some aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act which critics of the act argue are similar.
Role in the American Revolution
The Writs played an important role in the increasing difficulties that led to the American Revolution. In 1760, England began to enforce some of the provisions of the Navigation Acts by granting customs officers these writs. In New England, smuggling had become common. Massachusetts' new governor, Sir Francis Bernard, ordered the writs be created for the customs collectors. While the Navigation Acts might affect only external commerce, the customs duties were viewed as an internal tax.
The colonists had several problems with these writs as they were applied. They were permanent and even transferable: a writ holder could asign them to another. Anyplace could be searched at the whim of the holder, and searchers were not responsible for any damage they caused. This put anyone who had such a writ above the law. When the writs were challenged in court, Bernard's attorney general James Otis resigned rather than defend them. In fact, Otis became the lead attorney for the other side.
The arguments advanced colonial thinking about rights and their relation with Britain. While some use of the writs was suspended, their role in raising tax revenue was later supplemented by taxes on sugar, tea, and the Stamp Act. And further efforts to enforce them a decade later led to martial law. Boston was occupied and General Thomas Gage became the military governor in 1774.