John W. Whitehead
May 24, 2011
“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 while 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. Customhouse 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.” ~ James Otis
In early America, citizens were considered equals with law enforcement officials. Authorities were rarely permitted to enter one’s home without permission or in a deceitful manner. And it was not uncommon for police officers to be held personally liable for trespass when they wrongfully invaded a citizen’s home. Unlike today, early Americans could resist arrest when a police officer tried to restrain them without proper justification or a warrant – which the police had to allow citizens to read before arresting them. (Daring to dispute a warrant with a police official today who is armed with high-tech military weapons and tasers would be nothing short of suicidal.) This clear demand for a right to privacy was not a byproduct of simpler times. Much like today, early Americans dealt with problems such as petty thievery, murder and attacks by foreign enemies. Rather, the demand for privacy stemmed from a harbored suspicion of law enforcement officials and the unbridled discretion they could abuse.
The Fourth Amendment, which assures that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” was included in the Bill of Rights in response to the oppressive way British soldiers treated American colonists through their use of “Writs of Assistance.” These were court orders that authorized British agents to conduct general searches of premises for contraband. The exact nature of the materials being sought did not have to be detailed, nor did their locations. The powerful new court orders enabled government officials to inspect not only shops and warehouses, but also private homes. These searches resulted in the violation of many of the colonists’ rights and the destruction of much of the colonists’ personal property. It quickly became apparent to many colonists that their homes were no longer their castles.