The Vice Admiralty Act of 1768 Led to the Fourth Amendment

Admiralty Courts were first established in England by Edward III in 1360 to handle discipline within the Royal Navy. These courts were presided over by an admiral, and over time, the scope of their jurisdiction expanded to include trying captured pirates and sale of prizes. By the American Revolution, the jurisdiction of admiralty courts had expanded to include settling maritime disputes which involved England and another country.

The “body of law” on which rulings were made was based on a mix of cases adjudicated by the courts themselves and English Common Law. When there was a conflict, the judge, usually a retired admiral, would render a ruling to provide precedent for future rulings.

To handle cases in the Thirteen Colonies, Vice Admiralty Courts in The Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Royal Colony of Maryland.

When Parliament passed what is known as The Intolerable Acts (see 2/12/23 post – When Did the American Revolution Really Start – ), the last and most egregious to our Founding Fathers was the Vice Admiralty Act of 1768.

The Tea Act listed items what items new duties and taxes were to be imposed and required the goods must be brought to England before being shipped to North America. This act led to a rise in smuggling to avoid the new taxes AND reduce the cost of the goods. Much of the cargo – cocoa beans, sugar, rum, and molasses – was being transported on ships owned by merchants in the Thirteen Colonies.

The Vice Admiralty Act of 1768 created three new vice admiralty courts in Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia and abolished those that existed. Under admiralty court law, one was guilty until proven innocent and if one did not appear before the court, a guilty verdict was rendered.

“Writs of assistance” were authorized by the Vice Admiralty Act of 1768 as the basis for issuing a search warrant. These writs did not require any evidence or proof of suspicion that a crime had been committed to be presented to the judge. The writs gave the court’s own officers wide latitude when they searched an individual’s property.

The act authorized the courts to hire their own officers so now, a vice admiralty court could investigate, prosecute, render a verdict, collect fees, assess fines, and seize property. The act also authorized the court to retain 5% of any monies it assessed.

The colonists felt their rights as English citizens were being abrogated in three ways. First, by the “writs of assistance” which did meet the standards of British law as practiced in England. Second, those accused were not allowed a jury trial. Third, by moving the court hearing to another court where the accused was unlikely to be able to attend, a guilty verdict was assured.

John Hancock who was a wealthy importer/exporter living in Boston owned a sloop named Liberty. In 1768, he was accused of smuggling wine and the ship and its cargo were seized by the Vice Admiralty Court in Boston using a “writ of assistance.” Hancock was fined £9,000, an enormous sum at the time and sued the court. His attorney was John Adams. Ultimately, Hancock prevailed in overturning the fine, but by then his ship and cargo had been sold by the court which, of course, took its 5%.

Liberty was taken into the Royal Navy to be refitted as a sloop-of-war in Newport, RI. While being modified, the citizens of Newport set fire to the ship which sank off Goat Island.

Now you know why the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Image is Kenneth Zirkel’s photo of the plaque in Newport, RI commemorating the July 19th, 1769 act of defiance.


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