Issue or Issues: May a plea be withdrawn if the prosecution fails to fulfill all its promises, even if the result would have been the same if the prosecution had kept its promise? Yes.
Decision: The Court vacated and remanded the decision of the New York court.
Holding: Once the court has accepted a guilty plea entered in accordance with a plea bargain, the defendant has a right to have the bargain enforced. If the prosecution does not keep the bargain, a court should decide whether the circumstances require enforcement of the plea bargain or whether the defendant should be granted an opportunity to withdraw the guilty plea. In this case, the prosecutor’s broken promise to make no sentencing recommendation pursuant to a guilty plea, even though it was not maliciously broken, is sufficient to vacate the judgment and remand the case back to the trial court.
Case Significance: Santobello gives reliability to the bargaining process in that a defendant can rely on the promise of the prosecutor. If the defendant relied on that promise as an incentive for pleading guilty and the promise is not kept, the guilty plea can be withdrawn.
Excerpts from the Opinion: Disposition of charges after plea discussions is not only an essential part of the process but a highly desirable part for many reasons. It leads to prompt and largely final disposition of most criminal cases; it avoids much of the corrosive impact of enforced idleness during pretrial confinement for those who are denied release pending trial; it protects the public from those accused persons who are prone to continue criminal conduct even while on pretrial release; and, by shortening the time between charge and disposition, it enhances whatever may be the rehabilitative prospects of the guilty when they are ultimately imprisoned.
However, all of these considerations presuppose fairness in securing agreement between an accused and a prosecutor. It is now clear, for example, that the accused pleading guilty must be counseled, absent a waiver. Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11, governing pleas in federal courts, now makes clear that the sentencing judge must develop, on the record, the factual basis for the plea, as, for example, by having the accused describe the conduct that gave rise to the charge. The plea must, of course, be voluntary and knowing and if it was induced by promises, the essence of those promises must in some way be made known. There is, of course, no absolute right to have a guilty plea accepted. A court may reject a plea in exercise of sound judicial discretion.
This phase of the process of criminal justice, and the adjudicative element inherent in accepting a plea of guilty, must be attended by safeguards to insure the defendant what is reasonably due in the circumstances. Those circumstances will vary, but a constant factor is that when a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.
On this record, the petitioner bargained and negotiated for a particular plea in order to secure dismissal of more serious charges, but also on the condition that no sentence recommendation would be made by the prosecutor. It is now conceded that the promise to abstain from a recommendation was made, and at this stage the prosecution is not in a good position to argue that its nadvertent breach of agreement is immaterial.
Questions for you to answer
1. What constitutes an involuntary plea? An involuntary plea violates a defendant’s constitutional rights; therefore, it may be withdrawn at any time. However, what constitutes an involuntary plea is a difficult issue and must be determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis. Federal procedure permits a voluntary guilty plea to be withdrawn only before sentence is imposed—except that the court may permit a withdrawal after sentencing “to correct manifest injustice.” Some states follow the federal procedure; others simply do not allow the withdrawal of voluntary pleas at any time.
2. Should plea bargaining be prohibited by law? Plea bargaining is controversial; nonetheless, only a few jurisdictions have abolished it. Among them are Alaska and some counties in Louisiana, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, and Oregon. Plea bargains may be prohibited by state law or by agency policy prescribed by chief prosecutors or judges. The predominant view is that, because they reduce the number of cases that come to trial, plea bargains are an essential and necessary part of the criminal justice process. Most authors agree that around 90 percent of cases that reach the courts are eventually resolved through guilty pleas. It is assumed that “the system can function only if a high percentage of cases are disposed of by guilty pleas and this will happen only if concessions are granted to induce pleas.” It is further assumed that “a reduction from 90 percent to 80 percent in guilty pleas requires the assignment of twice the judicial manpower and facilities—judges, court reporters, bailiffs, clerks, jurors, and courtrooms.”18
In sum, despite its negatives, plea bargaining generally benefits the state, the defendant, and the criminal justice system. Its results may not achieve ideal justice (whatever that means), but the practice is here to stay. Answer all aspects of the questions to earn full credit. Provide a summary of what you learn and reaction. What do you disagree with or have a question about?