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

Author: Justice Marshall

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

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, with whom MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN and MR. JUSTICE STEWART join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

I agree with much of the majority’s opinion, but conclude that petitioner must be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea. This is the relief petitioner requested, and, on the facts set out by the majority, it is a form of relief to which he is entitled.

There is no need to belabor the fact that the Constitution guarantees to all criminal defendants the right to a trial by judge or jury, or, put another way, the "right not to plead guilty," United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 581 (1968). This and other federal rights may be waived through a guilty plea, but such waivers are not lightly presumed, and, in fact, are viewed with the "utmost solicitude." Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 243 (1969). Given this, I believe that, where the defendant presents a reason for vacating his plea and the government has not relied on the plea to its disadvantage, the plea may be vacated and the right to trial regained, at least where the motion to vacate is made prior to sentence and judgment. In other words, in such circumstances I would not deem the earlier plea to have irrevocably waived the defendant’s federal constitutional right to a trial.

Here, petitioner never claimed any automatic right to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing. Rather, he tendered a specific reason why, in his case, the plea should be vacated. His reason was that the prosecutor had broken a promise made in return for the agreement to plead guilty. When a prosecutor breaks the bargain, he undercuts the basis for the waiver of constitutional rights implicit in the plea. This, it seems to me, provides the defendant ample justification for rescinding the plea. Where a promise is "unfulfilled," Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 755 (1970), specifically denies that the plea "must stand." Of course, where the prosecutor has broken the plea agreement, it may be appropriate to permit the defendant to enforce the plea bargain. But that is not the remedy sought here.* Rather, it seems to me that a breach of the plea bargain provides ample reason to permit the plea to be vacated.

It is worth noting that, in the ordinary case where a motion to vacate is made prior to sentencing, the government has taken no action in reliance on the previously entered guilty plea, and would suffer no harm from the plea’s withdrawal. More pointedly, here, the State claims no such harm beyond disappointed expectations about the plea itself. At least where the government itself has broken the plea bargain, this disappointment cannot bar petitioner from withdrawing his guilty plea and reclaiming his right to a trial.

I would remand the case with instructions that the plea be vacated and petitioner given an opportunity to replead to the original charges in the indictment.

* M. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, although joining the Court’s opinion (apparently because he thinks the remedy should be chosen by the state court), concludes that the state court "ought to accord a defendant’s preference considerable, if not controlling, weight." Thus, a majority of the Court appears to believe that in cases like these, when the defendant seeks to vacate the plea, that relief should generally be granted.


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Chicago: Marshall, "Marshall, J., Concurring and Dissenting," Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971) in 404 U.S. 257 404 U.S. 268–404 U.S. 269. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: Marshall. "Marshall, J., Concurring and Dissenting." Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971), in 404 U.S. 257, pp. 404 U.S. 268–404 U.S. 269. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Marshall, 'Marshall, J., Concurring and Dissenting' in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971). cited in 1971, 404 U.S. 257, pp.404 U.S. 268–404 U.S. 269. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from