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Bordenkircher v. Hayes

Case Name
Bordenkircher v. Hayes
434 U.S. 357
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
Potter Stewart
Judge(s) - Majority
Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, John Paul Stevens, Byron White
Judge(s) - Dissent
Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
6th Circuit
Decision Year
Sentencing Differential (Maximum Exposure)
Sentencing Differential (Minimum Offered or Received)
5 Years
Sentencing Differential Size


Defendant was indicted for uttering a forged instrument in the amount of $88.30, punishable by a term of 2 to 10 years in prison. During plea negotiations, the prosecution offered Hayes a recommended sentence of 5 years. If he did not plead guilty to “save the court the inconvenience and necessity of a trial,” the prosecution threatened to re-indict Hayes under a habitual criminal law that carried a mandatory sentence of life. Hayes decided to proceed to trial, he was convicted, and he received the mandatory term of life inprisonment.

He challenged the conviction and the 6th Circuit found the conviction invalid because the case represented a “vindictive exercise of a prosecutor’s discretion.” The Supreme Court conceded that to “punish a person because he has done what the law allows him to do is a due process violation of the most basic sort.” But the Court went on to find that this course of conduct by the prosecution did not violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Rather, the Court noted that while presenting a defendant with the risks of a more significant punishment might discourage the assertion of the trial right, this type of decision-making was “inevitable” in a system that encourages pleas.

Key Quote

“There is no doubt that the breadth of discretion that our country’s legal system vests in prosecuting attorneys carries with it the potential for both individual and institutional abuse. And broad though that discretion may be, there are undoubtedly constitutional limits upon its exercise. We hold only that the course of conduct engaged in by the prosecutor in this case, which no more than openly presented the defendant with the unpleasant alternatives of forgoing trial or facing charges on which he was plainly subject to prosecution, did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” p.365