News Release

Honoring the 250th Anniversary of Paxton's Case

Washington, DC (Feb. 23, 2011) – Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of James Otis's Writs of Assistance argument in Paxton's Case, which challenged the Redcoats’ abhorrent use of general warrants unsupported by probable cause, neither describing the places to be searched nor the persons or things to be seized.

NACDL Past President and Fourth Amendment expert John Wesley Hall shares these thoughts with NACDL and the readers of his blog:

“This is the 250th anniversary of James Otis’ argument at the Boston Old State House against the writs of assistance in Paxton’s Case, heard Tuesday, February 24, 1761. (See this prior post from 2006). According to John Adams (see prior link), the issues and presentation in this writs of assistance case led to the adoption of the Fourth Amendment in 1791. Otis apparently was the first to say it in an American courtroom.

“The argument is here, and it is stirring reading when one considers the abuse of the writs of assistance at the time. 

Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.

This wanton exercise of this power is not a chimerical suggestion of a heated brain. I will mention some facts. Mr. Pew had one of these writs, and, when Mr. Ware succeeded him, he endorsed this writ over to Mr. Ware; so that these writs are negotiable from one officer to another; and so your Honors have no opportunity of judging the persons to whom this vast power is delegated. Another instance is this: Mr. Justice Walley had called this same Mr. Ware before him, by a constable, to answer for a breach of the Sabbath-day Acts, or that of profane swearing. As soon as he had finished, Mr. Ware asked him if he had done. He replied, “Yes.” “Well then,” said Mr. Ware, “I will show you a little of my power. I command you to permit me to search your house for uncustomed goods” -- and went on to search the house from the garret to the cellar; and then served the constable in the same manner!

“Other apparent transcripts of the argument are here and here.”

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.