Black Lives, Police Power, and the Fourth Amendment

How the Supreme Court’s decision to treat unreasonable policing as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment has shortened the distance between life and death for Black people

“The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment over the past five decades has allocated enormous power to police officers—the power to surveil, the power to racially profile, the power to stop-and-frisk, and the power to kill.” —Devon W. Carbado, from Unreasonable

The summer of 2020 will be remembered as an unprecedented, watershed moment in the struggle for racial equality. Published on the second anniversary of the global protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Unreasonable is a groundbreaking investigation of the role that the law—and the U.S. Constitution—play in the epidemic of police violence against Black people.

In this crucially timely book, celebrated legal scholar Devon W. Carbado explains how the Fourth Amendment became ground zero for regulating police conduct—more important than Miranda warnings, the right to counsel, equal protection and due process. Fourth Amendment law determines when and how the police can make arrests, and it determines the precarious line between stopping Black people and killing Black people.

A leading light in the critical race studies movement, Carbado looks at how that text, in the last four decades, has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to protect police officers, not African Americans; how it sanctions search and seizure as well as profiling; and how it has become, ultimately, an amendment of life and death.

Accessible, radical, and essential reading, Unreasonable sheds light on a rarely understood dimension of today’s most pressing issue.


“Devon Carbado cuts to the heart of the problem of over-policing and police violence in communities of color: the law itself. Unreasonable should permanently shift our discussion from bad apples to bad jurisprudence—and sets the stage for the most important new front in the battle for Black lives.”
—Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder and executive director, African American Policy Forum
Unreasonable demonstrates how the ability of the police to harass, surveil, search, intimidate, brutalize, and kill us is enshrined in our vaunted Bill of Rights and sanctioned by centuries of racism. Devon Carbado’s utterly brilliant break down of the Fourth Amendment you won’t find on Schoolhouse Rock. But you will find it in the hands of anyone trying to understand why, despite decades of reform, policing does not make us safe. A breathtaking, compelling journey through constitutional law intended to not only enlighten but to literally save lives.”
—Robin D.G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, University of California, Los Angeles
“Enriched by Carbado’s accessible analysis of court rulings and judicious selection of case studies, this is a powerful indictment of the criminal justice system.”
Publishers Weekly
Unreasonable heralds a lifetime achievement of cutting-edge work by Devon Carbado. Come to this brilliant and engaging book for its full blast takedown of the Supreme Court for authorizing police violence and abuse. Stay for Carbado’s eloquent plea to activists—and all concerned citizens—about who to resist, and how. A combustible mix of righteous anger and common sense, Unreasonable is fire.”
—Paul Butler, MSNBC legal analyst and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men
Unreasonable is a searing indictment of race and policing in the United States. Professor Devon Carbado explains how the law gives police tremendous, unchecked power. His account of that power is the clearest, most forceful explanation I have seen about what the failure to constrain the police means for people’s lives.”
—Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

News and Reviews


Watch a discussion of Unreasonable with author Devon Carbado in conversation with Paul Butler on C-SPAN's Book TV.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Unreasonable in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews