Back to Summaries

Santobello v. New York

Case Name
Santobello v. New York
404 U.S. 257
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
Warren Burger
Judge(s) - Majority
Warren Burger, William Douglas, Byron White, Harry Blackmun
Judge(s) - Concur
William Douglas
Judge(s) - Dissent
Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, Potter Stewart
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Judicial Department
Decision Year
Sentencing Differential (Maximum Exposure)
4 years
Sentencing Differential (Minimum Offered or Received)
1 year
Sentencing Differential Size
3 years


Defendant was charged with two gambling offenses and originally pled not guilty. After the prosecutor agreed defendant could plead guilty to a lesser included offense and agreed to make no sentencing recommendations, the defendant entered a plea of guilty. Between the court accepting his plea and his sentencing hearing, defendant hired new counsel and asked to withdraw his plea on the basis that the most crucial evidence against him was obtained pursuant to an illegal search. The court denied this motion. Defendant’s sentencing hearing was before a new judge, as the judge who had originally accepted his plea had retired. Additionally, a new prosecutor had replaced the original prosecutor that had agreed to the terms of the plea. The new prosecutor recommended the maximum sentence. Defense counsel objected on the ground that the State had previously promised not to make a sentencing recommendation. The new prosecutor argued there was nothing in the record to reflect that promise had been made. The court accepted the State’s sentencing recommendation and the appellate court affirmed. The Supreme Court held that this was error, resulting from an “unfortunate lapse in orderly prosecutorial procedures, in part, no doubt, because of the enormous increase in the workload of the often understaffed prosecutor’s offices.” However, the Court held that when it can be said that a defendant relied, even if only in part, on a promise made by the prosecutor in accepting a plea deal, that promise must be honored to uphold the interests of justice. The Court remanded the case to the state court to decide the appropriate relief, whether that be to allow the defendant to withdraw his plea or that he is entitled to specific performance of the original promise and must be resentenced without a recommendation by the prosecutor.

Key Quote

“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.” p.262