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General Warrant


General warrants command either apprehension for unstated causes or the arrest, search, or seizure of unspecified persons, places, or objects. Since the Five Knights Case (1628) English courts have consistently disallowed the first category of warrant, although its use survived a century later. The general warrant of the second sort, which allowed its bearer to search wherever or seize whomever or whatever he wished, was more common. It existed by the early fourteenth century and found ever growing applications. The Star Chamber and "High Commission" of the Tudor-Stuart period used such warrants vigorously to suffocate political and religious dissent. By the middle of the eighteenth century, general warrants were or had also been used to combat vagrancy, regulate publications, impress persons into the army and navy, pursue felons, collect taxes, and find stolen merchandise. A close relative, the writ of assistance, allowed customs officers to search all houses in which they suspected concealed contraband.

Beginning with the wilkes cases (1763–1770), British courts undermined the use of general search warrants by secretaries of state. Although they were widely used in colonial and revolutionary America, eight state constitutions of 1776–1784 forbade them, as does the fourth amendment to the federal Constitution.

William Cuddihy


Cuddihy, William and Hardy, B. Carmon 1980 A Man's House Was Not His Castle: Origins of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. William and Mary Quarterly 37: 371–400.

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