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One way to regard what the Supreme Court has done in the cases it has decided under the Fourth Amendment is to say that it has created a specialized discourse of adjudication, a language in which it can talk about and dispose of the repeated conflicts that arise between an officer engaged in the process of crime control and a citizen upon whose freedom or security he intrudes. The events which bring these two figures together are bewildering in their variety and complexity, and the claims on each side are deeply felt and strenuously made. It has not been easy for the Court to work out a coherent way of addressing these conflicts, and the cases accordingly reflect a considerable amount of uncertainty and confusion, especially if one examines the particular results. Can there be found behind the complex and inconsistent surface of the cases, any general continuities of attitude, any agreed-upon and more or less permanent ways of defining the roles of officer and suspect and of regulating the relationship between them? Such definitions-if they existed in forms of which one could approve-would constitute an important social and intellectual resource, potentially serving as an expression of value and attitude of a far more stable and enduring kind than might at first be thought possible from examination of the cases themselves. I propose to trace some of the difficulties the Court has faced in trying to fashion a coherent discourse of Fourth Amendment adjudication, and to identify certain continuities of attitude. It is against this background that I examine United States v. Robinson and United States v. Matlock, as contributions to the discourse of the Fourth Amendment.


This work is under a CC-BY license, meaning you may share and adapt this work provided that you give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes are made. This work was originally published as White, James Boyd. "The Fourth Amendment as a Way of Talking about People: A Study of Robinson and Matlock." Supreme Court Review 1974 (1974): 165-232. Work published when author not on Michigan Law faculty.