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Cops and Robbers: Selective Literalism in American Criminal Law

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Police often ask people to consent to a search of their person or possessions. Many people agree to allow such searches because they interpret the officers' ostensible “requests” as indirect commands. Yet courts routinely interpret police utterances in this situation as requests. A similar issue arises in the context of custodial interrogation. People being interrogated are inclined to invoke their right to counsel in relatively indirect or tentative terms. Yet courts often conclude that the suspect did not really “request” the presence of counsel. We refer to this inconsistency as “selective literalism,” by which we mean that courts selectively consider pragmatic circumstances in interpreting the speech of suspects. Using analytical tools from linguistic theory, this article explores how courts employ selective literalism. It further examines some of the consequences of this inconsistent use of interpretive devices, both practically and jurisprudentially.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2004


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