Author ORCID Identifier

Kay Levine 0000-0002-9422-232X

Jonathan Nash 0000-0001-5816-6896

Document Type


Publication Date



Supreme Court, Unconstitutional conditions doctrine, Criminal procedure rights, Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Sixth Amendment


For more than a century, the Supreme Court has applied the unconstitutional conditions doctrine in many contexts, scrutinizing government efforts to condition the tradeoff of rights for benefits with regard to speech, funding, and takings, among others. The Court has declined, however, to invoke the doctrine in the area of criminal procedure, where people accused of crime are often asked to—and often do—surrender their constitutional rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments in return for some benefit. Despite its insistence that the unconstitutional conditions doctrine applies broadly across the Bill of Rights, the Court’s jurisprudence demonstrates that the doctrine functions as a selective shield that offers no support for certain rightsholders.

We argue that the Court’s approach undermines vital rights, with especially harmful consequences for people who most need judicial protection. Since individuals accused of crime are often extremely vulnerable to coercive government measures, the important safeguards offered by the unconstitutional conditions doctrine should be at their height in the criminal procedure setting. Indeed, lower federal courts and some state courts have applied the doctrine to criminal procedure issues, demonstrating the doctrine’s utility in this domain. We conclude that the Supreme Court’s aversion to leveraging the unconstitutional conditions doctrine in its criminal procedure docket rests not on a principled doctrinal distinction, but on a failure to take seriously the constitutional predicaments facing those charged with crimes. In accordance with its obligation to render equal justice under law, the Court must apply the unconstitutional conditions doctrine in this most critical area.

First Page


Publication Title

Yale Law Journal