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"Dearest property": digital evidence and the history of private "papers" as special objects of search and seizure.


 A. Searches for Digital Evidence Pursuant to Warrant or the Vehicle
 Exception to the Warrant Requirement
 B. Searches of Digital Evidence Incident to Lawful Arrest
 A. The North Briton No. 45
 B. General Warrants and the Seizure of Papers: The House of Commons
 C. The Tort Suits Against the King's Messengers and the Secretary of
 D. The Pamphlet War of '64
 E. Endgame in Parliament
 A. American Interest in the English Controversy
 B. Reception of the Common Law of Search and Seizure
 C. Statutory Respect for the Rule of Entick
 D. State Search-and-Seizure Provisions Before the Constitution
 of 1789
 E. Anti-Federalist Concerns and Amendments Proposed During
 Ratification of the 1789 Constitution
 F. Congressional Drafting of the Fourth Amendment in 1789
 G. Early Practice
 A. The Common Law Background
 B. The 1863 Statute
 C. Postwar Legislation and Constitutional Challenges
 D. The 1874 Act
 E. Boyd
 F. Boyd and Lochner
 G. Boyd as Doctrine: Two Apparent Anomalies
 1. The Mere-Evidence Rule
 2. Search Incident to Arrest
 A. The Case Against Equating "Papers" and "Effects"
 B. The Pooling Problem and the All-or-Nothing Dilemma
 C. Beyond All or Nothing

Why does the Fourth Amendment distinctly refer to "papers" prior to "effects"? Why should we care?

The inquiry is interesting for the usual reasons legal history is interesting--those who look may find a compelling story that provides the surest foundation for understanding modern doctrine. In this case, however, there is an additional and urgent reason for caring about history. Modern doctrine is in deep trouble and needs all the help it can get.

For more than a century, the Supreme Court adhered to the doctrine of Boyd v. United States, granting private papers an extraordinary exemption from seizure, even under warrant. (1) Then, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court began effectively to equate "papers" and "effects." (2) Another line of modern cases established "bright-line rules" (3) that gave the same constitutional treatment to all "effects." (4)

Twenty-first century technology makes these doctrines problematic. Portable devices like cell phones and flash drives are '"effects" subject to search and seizure like briefcases and backpacks. Given the enormous quantity and sensitive content of the information digital devices hold, equating them with other "effects" has troubled courts and commentators. (5)

In computer search cases, the police may have probable cause and be able to describe particularly what they are seeking. But the disturbing feature is the volume of innocent and intimate information that must be exposed before the criminal material is discovered. This pooling of small quantities of criminal evidence with large quantities of innocent and intimate information is not new. It appeared in a great controversy over general warrants, libels, and seizure of papers that erupted in England in the 1760s.

This Article argues that the history of seizing "papers" explains why the Amendment uses the term and offers the opportunity to ground special Fourth Amendment rules for digital evidence. For originalist judges the pertinence of history is obvious. History is important, however, for any theory of constitutional interpretation more formal than brazen realism. (6) In this instance, history might help to reconcile Fourth Amendment doctrine with the widespread sense that some effects are categorically more private than others.

The Fourth Amendment refers to "papers" because the Founders understood the seizure of papers to be an outrageous abuse distinct from general warrants. The English courts and resolutions of the House of Commons condemned both abuses distinctly. The controversy was closely followed in America, where colonial Whigs sympathized with, and even idolized, John Wilkes, who successfully sued for damages for the seizure of his papers. America inherited the common law ban on searches for papers, adopted constitutional provisions that mentioned papers distinctly, and refused to modify the common law ban by statute until the Civil War. The one Founding-era attempt to authorize seizing papers by statute was condemned as contrary to common law and natural right and never passed into law. Although Congress authorized seizing papers to enforce the revenue laws during the Civil War, it took until the 1880s for a challenge to reach the Supreme Court. That challenge was Boyd, which remained the law for another ninety years.

Boyd rightly held that "papers" deserve more constitutional protection than "effects." Special protection does not, however, ineluctably mean absolute immunity. The seizures that aroused outrage in the 1760s were indiscriminate, expropriating, unregulated, and inquisitorial. A regulated, discriminate, and nonrivalrous process for inspecting documents is different.

Indeed, the prohibition on seizing papers was never absolute. Stolen and contraband papers could be seized under warrant, and perhaps papers of only evidentiary value could be seized incident to arrest. Moreover, if the Fourth Amendment, as Story said, is "little more than the affirmance of a great constitutional doctrine of the common law," (7) the Amendment incorporates by reference "a great constitutional doctrine" that was dynamic on its own terms, subject to judicial evolution and statutory modification. (8) The supposed choice between no special protection for private papers and complete immunity for private papers is a false dilemma.

This Article takes no position on the precise special doctrines that should be formulated to prevent promiscuous searches of digitized information. Those depend on costs and benefits, and on institutional competence to assess costs and benefits. (9) The Article claims only that courts interpreting the Fourth Amendment have legitimate textual and historical grounds for treating "papers" and their modern counterparts with more respect than other "effects."

Part I briefly describes the technological crisis in current Fourth Amendment doctrine. Part II reviews the history of the controversy over general warrants, libels, and the seizure of papers that raged in England early in the reign of George III. Part III turns to the American experience, beginning with American awareness of the English controversy before considering the post-Independence reception of the ban on seizing papers, the adoption of constitutional provisions referring specially to "papers," and Founding-era practices. Part IV tells the still largely unsuspected story of Boyd v. United States. Part V weighs the accumulated evidence and suggests that Boyd's inflexible ban on seizing private papers, while more defensible than modern doctrine's excision of a word from the constitutional text, was not the only legitimate doctrinal way to honor the constitutional preference for "papers" over "effects." Once we understand the special evils the Founders saw in seizing papers, we may conclude that searches carefully structured to minimize those evils are not "unreasonable."


The Supreme Court's case law permits the search for and seizure of evidence, including documentary evidence, (a) by warrants meeting the criteria of the Warrant Clause; (b) without warrants when the police have probable cause to believe evidence or contraband may be inside a vehicle; (10) and (c) incident to a lawful arrest based on probable cause, even without particularized suspicion to believe the suspect might destroy evidence or reach for a weapon. (11) When an arrest takes place in public, the police may thoroughly search the suspect's person, including personal items such as wallets and notebooks, and may open containers such as briefcases and backpacks. (12) When the arrest takes place indoors, the police, under Chimel v. California, may also search areas within the immediate "grabbing range" of the suspect. (13) When the arrest takes place in a vehicle, the recent decision in Arizona v. Gant directs that police "may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest." (14)

As Orin Kerr forcefully pointed out, these physical-evidence rules are incongruous when applied to digital evidence. (15) The physical-evidence rules permit the police to carry off the suspect's computer drives and peruse every file if they have probable cause to believe such a search will yield a single incriminating file. And when the suspect is arrested while carrying a cell phone or thumb drive, a literal application of the predigital search-incident-to-arrest rules permits the police to read every contact and file without probable cause.

A warrant to search the garage of a suspect's home for a stolen pickup truck does not authorize the police to search the garage of another home owned by the same suspect. That would be a general warrant, which is anathema to the Constitution. Yet while one warrant will not permit law enforcement to search two premises for physical evidence, one warrant will suffice to read all the files on a personal computer, so long as it particularly describes the incriminating files to be seized. Yet the intrusion on privacy from opening the door of the second unit's garage seems dramatically less than that attending the search, file by file, of the family desktop. Current doctrine has gone badly awry in the digital-evidence context.


Once law enforcement agents have built a record of probable cause to suspect that incriminating files are present on a suspect's computer, the standard practice is to obtain a warrant to enter the suspect's premises and remove digital storage devices for subsequent search at police headquarters. (16) The practice extends beyond the investigation of crimes committed by digital communications. Given probable cause to suspect that a target committed an offense, general information that similar offenders sometimes document crimes on their technology can support a search warrant.

For example, in United States v. Burgess, police lawfully stopped the suspect's motor home on the road for the ostensible purpose of traffic enforcement. (17) During the stop a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the vehicle, establishing probable cause to search the mobile home for drugs. (18) The police found marijuana in the mobile home, arrested Burgess, and impounded the vehicle. (19) Inside the vehicle the police also found a laptop computer and two hard drives. (20)

The police then sought a warrant, representing that drug dealers often keep "trophy photos" of large quantities of drugs or cash to celebrate successful transactions. (21) The judge issued a warrant to search the motor home for "evidence to show the transportation and delivery of controlled substances," including "computer records" and "pay-owe sheets, address books, rolodexes, pagers, firearms and monies." (22) The warrant imposed no special limits on the computer searches.

An investigator copied all three drives using a program that permitted the officer to view the files as they were copied. (23) The officer saw an image of "child sexual exploitation," turned off the view function, and sought another warrant authorizing a search of the drives for child pornography. (24) That warrant was issued and the police subsequently found thousands of child-pornographic images. (25)

Burgess moved to suppress, arguing that the initial warrant was general and so the plain-view discovery of the child pornography was fruit of the poisonous tree. (26) The government defended the warrant as adequately particularized and also claimed that, even if the warrant were void, the police could search the computer drives under the vehicle exception because the drives were analogous to containers that had been found in a vehicles The district court accepted both government arguments. (28) On appeal the Tenth Circuit upheld the initial warrant and declined to rule on the defendant's argument that the vehicle search exception should not extend to digital evidence. (29)

By its literal terms the warrant authorized the police to search all the suspect's computer files for anything at all. (30) The supporting affidavit indicated that the police were looking for photographic evidence of drug dealing, although the warrant did not say this. (31) The Burgess court rescued the warrant by imputing the affidavit's mention of "trophy photos" to the warrant. (32) On the authority of this generic warrant, even as narrowed by construction, the police undertook the process of copying and viewing all the files on the three drives. (33)

The court's evasive passage rejecting the defendant's particularity argument betrayed considerable ambivalence: While "[o]fficers must be clear as to what it is they are seeking on the computer and conduct the search in a way that avoids searching files of types not identified in the warrant," (34) "a computer search may be as extensive as reasonably required to locate the items described in the warrant" (35) based on probable cause. And "[t]his Court has never required warrants to contain a particularized computer search strategy." (36) Recognizing with regret the global search power conferred on police by a warrant authorizing a search of computer files, the Tenth Circuit weighed the evils and concluded that "it is folly for a search warrant to attempt to structure the mechanics of the search and a warrant imposing such limits would unduly restrict legitimate search objectives." (37) "[I]n the end, there may be no practical substitute for actually looking in many (perhaps all) folders and sometimes at the documents contained within those folders, and that is true whether the search is of computer files or physical files. It is particularly true with image files." (38)

The Ninth Circuit has weighed the evils rather differently. In United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, the en banc court's opinion upheld two lower court rulings ordering the government to return computer records seized in violation of warrants that did impose limits on the search of computer files. (39) Neither Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41 nor any Supreme Court case interpreting the Fourth Amendment requires special procedures for computer searches. (40) The issue was whether, where district courts included safeguards in the search warrants, plaintiffs were entitled to the return of their records when the government failed to abide by the terms of the warrants. (41)

The court's per curiam opinion did not expressly say that a warrant that failed to include special particularity guarantees, like the one in Burgess, would be unconstitutional, but that message was at least arguably implied. Chief Judge Kozinski, joined by four other judges, went further in a concurring opinion. In the interests of guiding lower courts, prosecutors, and agents, the concurring opinion described a constitutional "safe harbor" for warrants to search computer files. The (rather strongly) suggested warrant structure is as follows:

1. Magistrate judges should insist that the government waive reliance upon the plain view doctrine in digital evidence cases.

2. Segregation and redaction of electronic data must be done either by specialized personnel or an independent third party. If the segregation is to be done by government computer personnel, the government must agree in the warrant application that the computer personnel will not disclose to the investigators any information other than that which is the target of the warrant.

3. Warrants and subpoenas must disclose the actual risks of destruction of information as well as prior efforts to seize that information in other judicial fora.

4. The government's search protocol must be designed to uncover only the information for which it has probable cause, and only that information may be examined by the case agents.

5. The government must destroy or, if the recipient may lawfully possess it, return non-responsive data, keeping the issuing magistrate informed about when it has done so and what it has kept. (42)

The suggested approach is structurally similar to the special rules for digital searches adopted in the United Kingdom. (43)

Chief Judge Kozinski supported the recommended guidelines by citations suggesting they were implicit in the majority opinion. Judge Bea, however, characterized Judge Kozinksi's opinion as "advisory," (44) while Judge Callahan, joined by Judge Ikuta, agreed that the concurrence was advisory but also criticized the suggested guidelines. (45) Judge Callahan made the forceful points that the concurrence would effectively eliminate the plain-view doctrine in computer searches and that it offered "no legal authority for its proposal requiring the segregation of computer data by specialized personnel or an independent third party." (46)

In sum, Burgess states the orthodox view of searches of computers and other electronics, which equates digital storage devices with file cabinets. (47) Despite the dominance of rote application of the physical rules to the digital sphere, there is unquiet among judges. Comprehensive Drug Testing is one example. The apologetic tone in Burgess, itself retreating from the Tenth Circuit's former special regard for digital evidence, is another.


In United States v. Robinson, the Supreme Court upheld a "thorough" "search of respondent's person" because Robinson had been lawfully arrested. (49) No case-specific reason for a search, such as specific grounds to believe the suspect is carrying weapons or contraband, is required. (50) In Robinson the Court rejected the defendant's motion to suppress heroin found inside a crumpled cigarette pack located in Robinson's pocket. The lower courts have applied the automatic right to search items found on the person arrested to such personal items as wallets and purses. (51)

A cell phone seems very similar to other personal effects. Many suspects are arrested with their phones literally on their persons, inside a pocket or a purse. Professor Gershowitz estimates that in recent years police have made "thousands" of searches of cell phones incident to arrests. (52) The leading case, United States v. Finley, (53) simply equated Finley's cell phone with Robinson's cigarette pack. (54) Yet in Finley the agents read the address book and text messages stored in Finley's phone, (55) an intrusion that seems dramatically more intrusive than rummaging through a cigarette pack.

Although Finley is still generally followed, (56) some judicial skepticism is emerging. In State v. Smith, the police seized Smith's cell phone from his person at the time of arrest and later searched the address book and text messages. (57) The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the analogy to "containers," reasoning that a container is one object capable of holding another object. (58) Repositories of intangible information, like Smith's phone, were different. (59) The Smith court then concluded that Smith had a higher expectation of privacy in his phone than in ordinary effects, and that while the warrantless seizure of the phone at the time of arrest was reasonable, the subsequent warrantless search of its contents was not. (60)

Eventually the Supreme Court will decide cases in which the government relied on traditional, rolodex-era warrants to search computer records, and defense counsel argue that digital searches without novel safeguards along the lines suggested by Chief Judge Kozinski are "unreasonable." Likewise the high Court is likely to decide cases in which the government relies on the search-incident-to-arrest exception to justify searches of cell phones, tablets, flash drives, and notebook computers without warrants or probable cause. The Court's own cases regarding physical evidence are relatively recent but disturbingly incongruent with the lived experience of modern technology.

When these cases arise, will the Court be able to find some principled ground for recognizing the special privacy concerns raised by dense concentrations of highly personal information found in common handheld devices? History suggests that certain "effects"--private "papers"--were indeed originally understood to deserve more constitutional protection than others. If that is so, and if a cogent analogy can be drawn between eighteenth-century "papers" and modern digital storage devices, there may be neglected doctrinal opportunities for responding to the technology crisis in Fourth Amendment law.

So let us go to the past and, just perhaps, back to the future.


The Fourth Amendment is generally seen as a response to two protests against particular abuses, the first against Writs of Assistance in the colonies in 1761-1762 and the second against general warrants in England in 1764-1765. The inspiration for singling out "papers" in the Fourth Amendment lies in this later controversy. John Adams's report of Otis's famous argument against the Writs of Assistance makes no special mention of papers. (61) This is not surprising because the writs did not authorize seizure of papers, only of undutied goods. (62) The English courts had not yet prohibited general warrants to search for and seize libels.

But in 1762 and 1763, the King's messengers executed general warrants to seize the authors and printers of seditious libels. They were sued successfully in the courts, which distinctly condemned general warrants and warrants for papers. Leading Whig commentators and resolutions of the House of Commons condemned the distinct but related evils of general warrants and warrants for papers. American Patriots paid close attention to this political drama.


George III became King of England in 1760. His chief minister was a Scot, the Earl of Bute. It was an age of weekly "newspapers" (pamphlets, really), exemplified by such items as The Tattler and The Rambler. Supporters of the government--the Tories--ran a paper called The Briton. John Wilkes, a flamboyant Member of Parliament and a leading Whig, published a weekly paper called the North Briton. The North Briton's title was itself a dig at Bute's Scottish roots, but Wilkes went further--much further--in the famous issue No. 45.

In popular parlance, "the 45" referred to the last major revolt by supporters of the exiled House of Stuart (called "Jacobites" because James Francis Edward Stuart was then the heir to that house). The 1745 uprising involved a plan to join Jacobite forces from the continent with allies in Scotland. Wilkes was linking, with no great subtlety, the King's favorite minister with those who had plotted to restore the Stuart monarchy, widely unpopular on account of its political oppressiveness and its Catholic sympathies.

No. 45 was a scurrilous attack on the King's speech opening the latest session of Parliament, a speech defending the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years' War. Wilkes took the line that the British had won the war but lost the conference, the whole of Canada being regarded as insufficient booty. The shots at Bute came very close to the King: "In vain will such a minister, or the foul dregs of his power, the tools of corruption and despotism, preach up in the speech that spirit of concord, and that obedience to the laws, which is essential to good order." (63) His Majesty was incensed and Lord Halifax, the Secretary of State, wrote out a general warrant to "seize and arrest" everyone connected with No. 45 "together with their papers" (the Halifax warrant). (64) Wilkes was arrested on April 30, 1763, and all his papers carried off; (65) forty-nine others were arrested. (66)

His supporters having sued out a writ of habeas corpus, Wilkes was brought to the bar of the Court of Common Pleas on May 3. In the speech he is said to have given there, Wilkes remarked on his injuries and vowed revenge in the courts:
 The particular cruelties of my treatment, worse than if I had been
 a Scots Rebel, this court will hear, and I dare say, from your
 justice, in due time redress.... My papers have been seized,
 perhaps with a hope the better to deprive me of that proof of their
 meanness, and. corrupt prodigality, which it may possibly, in a
 proper place, be yet in my power to give. (67)

Chief Justice Pratt of the Court of Common Pleas (later Lord Camden) ordered Wilkes released because libel was not a breach of the peace and therefore Wilkes, as a member of Parliament, was privileged against arrest. (68)


Wilkes, after recovering from a wound suffered in a duel, then fled to France and was expelled from the Commons on January 19, 1764. (69) On February 14, his supporters introduced a resolution: "That a General Warrant for apprehending and seizing the authors, printers, and publishers of a seditious libel, together with their papers, is not warranted by law." (70) A variety of amendments, apparently intended to garner as many votes as possible, resulted in this wording:
 That a General Warrant for apprehending and seizing the authors,
 printers, and publishers, of a seditious and treasonable libel,
 together with their papers, is not warranted by law; although such
 warrant hath been issued according to the usage of office; and hath
 been frequently produced to, and, so far as appears to this House,
 the validity thereof hath never been debated in the court of
 King's-bench; but the parties thereupon have been frequently bailed
 by the said court. (71)

There was intense debate on the measure, and many supporters of the government (now led by Grenville rather than Bute) were in favor of the motion. Confronted with his own practice of issuing general warrants when he served as prime minister, the Whig William Pitt (the elder) claimed to have issued them, knowing them to be illegal, as an act of selfless disobedience in wartime emergency. (72) The house narrowly voted (232 to 218) to put off debate on the resolution for four months. (73)


Meanwhile Wilkes and others molested on the authority of the Halifax warrant were pressing tort suits against the executing officers and Halifax himself. (74) In December 1863, Pratt upheld a jury verdict for Wilkes against Wood, one of the officers who executed the Halifax warrant, holding the warrant illegal and void. (75) Pratt refused to receive Wood's bill of exceptions as untimely, but when the King's Bench heard the issue in Money v. Leach, all the judges opined that the Halifax warrant was illegal and void. (76)

One of Wilkes's associates was John Entick, the author of another antigovernment periodical, The Monitor, or British Freeholder. In November 1762, before the appearance of the fateful North Briton No. 45, Entick's house was raided by officers executing another warrant issued by Halifax. Encouraged by the success Wilkes and others were enjoying in the courts, Entick sued Nathan Carrington and the other officers who had ransacked his home.

The defendants pleaded two justifications for the alleged trespass. First, they claimed that Halifax had the status, and therefore the immunity, of a justice of the peace. That immunity, they argued, should extend to the officers. Second, they claimed that the warrant made forcible entry of private premises legal. The defendants' pleadings described the warrant as follows:
 [T]he earl did in the King's name authorize and require the
 defendants, taking a constable to their assistance, to make strict
 and diligent search for the plaintiff, mentioned in the said
 warrant to be the author, or one concerned in the writing of
 several weekly very seditious papers, intitled, The Monitor or
 British Freeholder, No. 357, 358, 360, 373, 376, and 380, London,
 printed for J. Wilson and J. Fell in Paternoster Row, containing
 gross and scandalous reflections and invectives upon His Majesty's
 Government, and upon both Houses of Parliament, and him the
 plaintiff having found, to seize and apprehend and bring together
 with his books and papers in safe custody, before the Earl of
 Halifax to be examined concerning the premises, and further dealt
 with according to law.... (77)

Pratt's famous opinion rejected both defenses, finding that the secretary was not entitled to immunity and that the warrant was illegal and void. (78)

There were two published reports of Entick v. Carrington. Serjeant Wilson's reports appeared in 1770. (79) In 1780, Francis Hargrave published a new edition of Howell's State Trials, in ten volumes, followed by a supplemental eleventh volume in 1781. (80) Professor Davies has argued that the American Founders would only have known Wilson's report, while Boyd cites only to the State Trials report. (81) Antebellum American references to Entick typically cite to Wilson's report rather than Hargrave's. There is, however, some evidence indicating that the State Trials edition was circulating in America as well as in England. (82)

Although Wilson's report is denser, both reports of Entick identify four distinct obnoxious features of the warrant to seize papers. First, not only was it general with respect to the premises to be entered forcibly in search of the suspected papers, but also it was totally indiscriminate about the papers to be seized and carded away. (83) Second, it expropriated. The plaintiff's papers were not merely read by government agents, but the plaintiff himself was deprived of their use. (84) Third, the execution of the warrant was unregulated. The warrant did not require the presence of the owner or any neutral witness, an inventory, or a process for disputing the seizure and recovering the papers. (85) Finally, the seizure of papers was inquisitorial. Unlike the seizure of other goods, the seizure of papers reveals the private workings of a person's mind to government agents seeking a criminal conviction. (86)

Professor Sklansky argues that American hostility to the inquisitorial system in the original understandings of 1791, and especially 1868, has been exaggerated. (87) These points are well-taken and perhaps even understated; the Framers retained the most inquisitorial English procedure, examination following arrest. (88) Yet the evidence is unequivocal that Whig jurists condemned the seizure of papers as inquisitorial. For example, Serjeant Glynn argued in Entick that:
 [N]o power can lawfully break into a man's house and study to
 search for evidence against him; this would be worse than the
 Spanish inquisition; for ransacking a man's secret drawers and
 boxes to come at evidence against him, is like racking his body to
 come at his secret thoughts. (89)

If the vice in the Halifax warrant in Entick was not the authorization of seizing papers, what was it? The warrant might not pass modern standards of Fourth Amendment particularity, but it was far more specific than the one issued in the Wilkes case. (90) Hargrave gave titles to the cases in the State Trials reports. He called Wilkes v. Wood "the Case of General Warrants" and Entick v. Carrington "the case of Seizure of Papers." These were the names--one might suppose--they already had among lawyers.

Entick's respect for papers went so far as to question whether libels themselves could be seized. Pratt admitted that the practice had been to seize libels, but dated the practice only to an advisory opinion delivered by Scroggs. (91) If the seizure of libels was lawful, then they were proper objects of searches and "half the kingdom would be guilty in the case of a favourite libel, if libels may be searched for and seized by whomsoever and wheresoever the secretary of state thinks fit." (92) Given the magnitude of the pool into which the criminal documents were commingled, tolerating libel might be a lesser evil than tolerating the search powers necessary to ferret out the libels.

Pratt, however, left the question open, saying "if" private possession of a libel is crime, "as many cases say," disturbing search powers follow. (93) In the fuller report he says, "If libels may be seized, it ought to be laid down with precision, when, where, upon what charge, against whom, by what magistrate, and in what stage of the prosecution." (94) Although it seems that libels were contraband that had no legal value, (95) I have been unable to find concrete post-Entick examples of seizing stocks of offending pamphlets. In 1819 Parliament adopted a Libel Act as part of the notorious Six Acts, a crackdown on radicalism. Section 1 of the Act authorized the seizure of copies of a libel following the conviction of the author or publisher. (96) From the general purpose of the Six Acts, I suppose the Libel Act broadened prior seizure powers, but this is only conjecture.

The reported opinions were only one source of public information about the controversy over the seizure of papers. Before Wilson's reports were published in 1770, the parliamentary debate about general warrants in 1764 set off a pamphlet war between Whigs and Tories. There are at least passing references to the special evil of seizing papers in every Whig tract I have seen, and a full exposition of the theory later expressed in Boyd, including the notion that use of papers at trial is compelled self-incrimination, in the most prominent pamphlet of them all.


After the brouhaha in the Commons in February 1764, the Tories undertook a propaganda campaign to vindicate the use of general warrants in libel cases. Dr. Johnson, with characteristic pungency, declared that general warrants were "a matter about which the people cared so very little, that were a man to be sent over Britain to offer them an exemption from it at a halfpenny a piece, very few would purchase it." (97) The Whigs had a propaganda machine of their own and put it in gear. (98)

The Whigs' first salvo following the equivocation in the Commons was A Defence of the Minority in the House of Commons, on the Question Relating to General Warrants, written by Charles Townshend but printed without attribution by John Almon in 1764. (99) The Defence of the Minority focused primarily on general warrants, but also asked rhetorically what law then in force could deter Halifax from issuing another general warrant by which his messengers might enter another author's "House abruptly, alarming His family, keeping Him in close Custody; tumbling His most secret and confidential Papers and Deeds carelessly into a Sack, as in the former Instances, and trusting them to the Hand of a common and unresponsible Person, without Schedule or Security for recovery of them?" (100)

Townshend's pamphlet inspired a rebuttal by Charles Lloyd, again printed without attribution. (101) This Defence of the Majority is said to have "thoroughly crushed its rival." (102) There promptly appeared a surrebuttal, printed again by Almon and presumably authored again by Townshend. (103) This Reply emphasizes the dangers of seizing papers: "What private Gentleman can think his Property or Reputation safe, if the Title Deeds, by which he holds the one may be taken away, and every Secret of his Life be exposed to hurt the other?" (104)

The Reply was soon reinforced by a polemicist who "deserves to be ranked among ... the great Georgian pamphleteers." (105) The true identity of the author (or authors) known as "Candor" and "Father of Candor" is still a matter of conjecture. (106) But it is generally agreed that the two pamphlets, A Letter from Candor to the Public Advertiser (107) and A Letter Concerning Libels, Warrants, the Seizure of Papers, and Sureties for the Peace of Behaviour, (108) swept the field. (109)

Candor discusses private papers in the Letter to the Public Advertiser. After condemning the Wilkes warrant for generality, Candor says:
 [A]ny man is at liberty to think, and to put what thoughts he
 pleases upon paper, provided he does not publish them. In the case,
 therefore, of a Libel, this inquisitorial power of ransacking
 papers will not be endured. It would lead to the seizing of a man
 and his papers for a libel, against whom there was no proof, merely
 slight suspicion, under a hope that, among the private papers of
 his bureau, some proof might be found which would answer the end.
 It is a fishing for evidence, to the disquiet of all men, and to
 the violation of every private right; and is the most odious and
 infamous act, of the worst sort of inquisitions, by the worst sort
 of men, in the most enslaved counties: It is, in short, putting a
 man to the torture, and forcing him to give evidence against
 himself. (110)

Candor clearly described the seizure of papers as an evil distinct from general warrants, and clearly linked it to the privilege against self-incrimination.

A still clearer exposition of the theory later adopted by Boyd appears in Father of Candor's A Letter Concerning Libels, Warrants, the Seizure of Papers, and Sureties for the Peace of Behavior. The very title distinguishes the issue of general warrants from the issue of seizing papers. For a measured writer, Father of Candor expressed an extreme degree of emotional antipathy to prying into private papers:
 What then, can be more excruciating torture, than to have the
 lowest of mankind, such fellows as Mooney, Watson, and the rest of
 them, enter suddenly into his house, and forcibly carry away his
 scrutores, with all his papers of every kind, under a pretence of
 law, because the Attorney-general had, ex officio, filed an
 information against the author, printer and publisher of some
 pamphlet or weekly paper, and somebody had told one of these
 greyhounds that this gentleman was thought by some people to be the
 author! (111)

The seizure of papers was an "absolute illegality" and an "abominable outrage," (112) and the use of seized papers at a criminal trial "would be making a man give evidence against and accuse himself, with a vengeance." (113)

The libel itself might be seized, but no other documents, because only the libel was contraband:
 It must either be sworn that I have certain stolen goods, or such a
 particular thing that is criminal in itself, in my custody, before
 any magistrate is authorized to grant a warrant to any man to enter
 my house and seize it. Nay further, if a positive oath be made, and
 such a particular warrant be issued, it can only be executed upon
 the paper or thing sworn to and specified, and in the presence of
 the owner or of somebody intrusted by him, with the custody of it.

Father of Candor was well-known in America. (115) On his website, Roger Roots claims to have found more than 100 copies of Father of Candor's Letter Concerning Libels in American libraries, some, apparently, once owned by Rufus King and Benjamin Franklin. (116)

The most popular tract to emerge from the Wilkes affair was Britannia's Intercession for the Deliverance of John Wilkes, a celebration of Wilkes and liberty in mock-biblical rhetoric. (117) Even this rather lowbrow production made special mention of papers: "And they looked into his dwelling, and searched for his papers, and all secret workings, and they took them every one." (118)


In 1766 Bute's successor, Grenville, was in turn replaced by the Marquess of Rockingham. (119) By then, Leach had declared general warrants for libels illegal, and Entick had ruled the seizure of papers illegal. "Accordingly, resolutions were now agreed to, condemning general warrants, whether for the seizure of persons or papers, as illegal...." (120) The resolutions were distinct. The actual wording of the general warrants resolution was not confined to libel, while the second resolution condemned seizing the papers "of the author, printer, or publisher, of a libel, or the supposed author, printer, or publisher of a libel." (121) Looking back on the Rockingham administration, which lasted just over a year, Edmund Burke celebrated its various accomplishments. (122) The list includes these two consecutive items:
 The personal liberty of the subject was confirmed, by the
 resolution against general warrants.

 The lawful secrets of business and friendship were rendered
 inviolable, by the resolution for condemning the seizure of papers.

From the speech Wilkes gave in court after his arrest, to the separate opinions in Entick and Wilkes, to the Father of Candor pamphlets, to the resolutions of the House, warrants for papers and general warrants were seen as related, but distinct, abuses.



We have long known that the tribulations of Wilkes were followed closely in the colonies. We also have at least some direct evidence that American Whigs followed the Entick litigation and understood the seizure of papers as a distinct abuse. Eric Schnapper previously brought to light a report of the Wilkes verdict in the Boston Gazette to the effect that this "important decision" gave "every Englishman [] the satisfaction of seeing, that his house is his castle, and is not liable to be searched, nor his papers pried into by the malignant curiosity of King's Messengers, and an utter end put to that unconstitutional practice...." (124)

The Accessible Archives website maintains a searchable collection of colonial newspapers. (125) The most numerous items in the 1760s appear to be issues of the South Carolina Gazette, a Patriot organ, (126) although some other papers also appear. The archive contains close coverage of the Wilkesite cases, down to the names of counsel and the amount of damages, and includes multiple references, some by Wilkes himself, to the distinct evil of seizing papers. (127) The "seizure of papers" was not an obscure issue of law; it was the stuff of everyday political conversation in the colonies.
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Title Annotation:I. The Technological Crisis in Modern Doctrine through III. The Seizure of Papers in America from the English Controversy Through the Founding Era A. American Interest in the English Controversy, p. 49-75
Author:Dripps, Donald A.
Publication:Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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