The Right to Privacy: James Otis and the Revolutionary Origins of the 4th Amendment.


Program Description:

This presentation will discuss the 1761 Writs of Assistance case. In that colonial-era Boston hearing, James Otis, Jr. offered the first American opposition to British ministerial policy. Otis opposed the issuance of writs of assistance, a legal tool that functioned like a general search warrant, enabling British customs officers to search private homes and shops for smuggled goods. Otis saw this as a violation of the British constitution, and also as an instrument to effect the collection of revenue in America. Our current 4th Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure can be traced to that pre-Revolutionary case. With current concerns about the overreach of government surveillance, some knowledge of the origin of our right to protection from government search is both helpful and valuable.