The Ottumwa Courier

Opinion

June 8, 2013

Who was James Otis?

Most Americans can associate some names with our country’s fight for independence from the English Monarchy, which began in earnest in 1775: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams. Few, if any, would credit James Otis. Here is why they should.

It was routine practice for British officials, both in England and the American colonies, to search private residences and businesses without a search warrant. These government officials invaded premises wherever and whenever they so pleased. In 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis had the audacity to challenge this practice. Otis advanced the following theory: it was a violation of English constitutional rights for British government officials to search the homes and businesses of the colonists.

While James Otis lost this particular case, he empowered the colonists with a zeal to seek liberty and assert their rights. Specifically, his advocacy culminated in the passage of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

“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.”

Today it is easy for us to take for granted that a police officer will not enter our homes without a warrant, that our vehicles will not be stopped on the road without a reasonable suspicion to justify it and that our cell phones will not be taken by the government just because officials are curious about our communications. We rest secure that the IRS cannot just show up and search our business for files without demonstrating probable cause to believe evidence of a tax crime is present.

These rights have not always existed. For this aspect of our national security, Boston lawyer James Otis deserves much credit. The next article in this series will examine the role of the judiciary in the United States to ensure that the rights set forth in the Fourth Amendment are upheld.

Judge Yates lives in Sigourney and serves as a district court judge, traveling the circuit of Judicial District 8-A’s 10 counties. Recently, he received specialized training at the National Judicial College on search and seizure issues. He may be reached at joel.yates@iowacourts.gov.

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