The Language of Consent in Police Encounters

Janice Nadler and J. D. Trout

in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780199572120
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

The Language of Consent in Police Encounters

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  • Linguistics
  • Forensic Linguistics



This article deals with public encounters between citizens and police officers in the United States, focusing on encounters in which police question and search citizens without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It argues that when police officers seek permission to conduct a search, citizens often feel enormous pressure to say yes. But in most criminal cases, judges do not acknowledge these pressures, generally choosing instead to spotlight the politeness and restraint of the officers' language and demeanor. The discussion begins by considering the practical importance of the consent search as a crime investigation tool, and then looks at legal standards for such searches, including the ‘free to terminate’ test. To appreciate the controlling power of language, it also discusses general pragmatics and its application to police encounters. The article concludes by describing pragmatics and police authority, and analyzes empirical evidence regarding the language of consent in police encounters.

Keywords: consent; power of language; police encounters; United States; politeness; crime investigation; consent searches; terminate test; pragmatics; police authority

Article.  6868 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Forensic Linguistics

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