A Writ of Assistance was a general search warrant used in English and American colonial history to address the issue of smuggling. The writ enabled custom officials to search any vessel or building that they suspected was carrying smuggled goods. The writs of assistance were authorized by the English parliament to extend to British America after they received information that smuggling was not only aiding their wartime enemies but also diverting the much-needed government revenues.
The colonists were concerned and openly opposed the writs of assistance because they believed that the instrument infringed on their rights. The writs were permanent, transferable and the officials were not liable for any damages during the search. In Boston Massachusetts, the Boston merchants through their lawyer, James Otis sought legal redress. Otis made scathing arguments against the writs and termed them an illegality in the face of English common law and natural justice.
The Parliament enacted Writs of Assistance in 1760 in order to provide British officials with search warrants. These search warrants allowed the officials to inspect colonial homes and businesses for smuggled goods. The Writs of Assistance did not require any probable cause to pursue the searches, and as a result the Massachusetts colonists viewed this as a direct threat to their rights as 'Englishmen'. From their perspective these writs were proof that the British King was acting as a tryrant. The colonial response in Massachusetts amounted to a series of failed attempts to end the random searches of colonial homes. In addition, the British continued to tighten the enforcement of trade regulations upon the colonies.