Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971)

A prosecutor must honor promises made in connection with a plea bargain. In Santobello v. New York, the United States Supreme Court protected defendants who plead guilty by requiring prosecutors to fulfill their promises.

Defendant Santobello pled guilty in exchange for concessions by the prosecutor. In addition to reducing the charge, the prosecutor promised to refrain from recommending a sentence to the court. A prosecutor newly assigned to the case at sentencing and unaware of the prior promise urged the court to impose the maximum sentence.

Without citing the due process clause or any other constitutional provision, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction and sentence to ‘‘safeguard’’ the defendant. Plea bargaining, the Court said, is not inherently wrong. On the contrary, it is essential. But when a defendant’s plea rests in significant part on a promise by the prosecutor, that promise must be performed. The Court clarified in a later decision, Mabry v. Johnson, that the defendant’s guilty plea must be made in actual reliance on the promise in the plea agreement.

If the prosecutor breaks a promise not to recommend a sentence, then the sentencing judge’s statement that he was not influenced by the prosecutor’s recommendation does not make the error harmless. Instead, the remedy is for the trial court either to require specific performance of the promise and resentencing by a different judge or allow the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial on the original charges.

JEFFERSON L. LANKFORD

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Mabry v. Johnson, 467 U.S. 504 (1984)

See also Due Process; Guilty Plea; Plea Bargaining

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