The Dunk Warrant - The Most Important Warrant Ever?

George Montague Dunk wrote the Dunk Warrant. The legal decision that this warrant was unlawful (constituting "unreasonable search and seizure") is a cornerstone of modern Anglo-American legal thought. The text of this warrant is:

"George Montague Dunk, earl of Halifax, viscount Sudbury and baron Halifax, one of the lords of his majesty's most honourable privy council, lieutentant general of his majesty's forces, and principal secretary of state: these are in his majesty's name to authorize and require you (taking a constable to your assistance) to make strict and diligent search for the authors, printers and publishers of a seditious and treasonable paper, intitled, The North Briton, No. 45, Saturday April 23, 1763, printed for G. Kearsley in Ludgate-street, London, and them, or any of them, having found to apprehend and seize, together with their papers, and to bring in safe custody before me, to be examined concerning the premisses, and further dealt with according to law: and in due execution thereof, all mayors, sheriffs, justices of the peace, constables, and all other his majesty's officers civil and military, and loving subjects whom it may concern, are to be aiding and assisting you, as there shall be occasion; and for so doing this shall be your warrant. Given at St. James's the 26th day of April, in the third year of his majesty's reign. DUNK HALIFAX

To Nathan Carrington, John Money, James Watson, and Robert Blackmore, four of his majesty's messengers in ordinary."

The following account of the Dunk warrant and its importance has been written by Professor David A. Sklansky of the UCLA School of Law:

The Dunk warrant appears in English Historical Documents, vlm 10, p 256 (D.B. Horn & Mary Ransome eds., 1957). It may be the single most important warrant in the history of Anglo-American law.

The reasons for this have to do with the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the warrant, and with the events following its execution. In 1763, the British government imposed a new tax on cider. King George III personally defended the tax in a speech before Parliament. The tax angered John Wilkes, an outspoken critic of the government, who besides sitting in Parliaments published a kind of underground newspaper called The North Briton. On April 23, 1763, he published The North Briton No. 45, which attacked the tax and, more provokingly, attacked the king's speech. A week later the king's Secretary of State -- George Montague Dunk, a.k.a. Lord Halifax -- issued a warrant calling for the arrest of anyone associated with The North Briton No. 45 and for the seizure of all their papers.

More than 40 people were arrested pursuant to the warrant, including Wilkes, and many of them, again including Wilkes, sued the officers involved. Surprisingly, the plaintiffs won, despite the fact that Lord Halifax himself personally appeared in court to testify that he had indeed issued the warrant authorizing the officers' actions. The judges who heard the cases reasoned that warrant was invalid, because it swept too broadly -- both because it left the officers with discretion regarding whom, precisely, they should arrest, and because it allowed the seizure of all of their papers.

The verdicts in these cases were widely celebrated by liberals both in Britain and, even more so, in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic the cases came to stand for broad propositions regarding the importance of protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and, more particularly, against "general warrants" -- i.e., warrants authorizing the arrest of unnamed individuals, or calling for the inspection or seizure of all of a person's papers. In America these propositions were eventually codified in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures," and requires that all warrants "particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized." To this day the cases remain important sources of guidance for U.S. courts interpreting and applying the Fourth Amendment.

Fuller accounts of the events surrounding the issuance and subsequent invalidation of the Dunk warrant can be found in Telford Taylor, Two Studies in Constitutional Interpretation 29-35 (1969), and in the several available biographies of John Wilkes.


David A. Sklansky
UCLA School of Law