Bordenkircher v. Hayes

434 U.S. 357 (1978)

Quick Summary

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Paul Lewis Hayes (defendant) was indicted for forgery and faced a plea bargain offering a five-year sentence or potential re-indictment with harsher penalties. After refusing the deal, he was re-indicted under harsher charges and received a life sentence. Hayes challenged this as unconstitutional coercion.

The Supreme Court reviewed whether such prosecutorial threat and action violated due process rights. The Court concluded that it did not, reversing the lower court’s decision that had found in favor of Hayes.

Facts of the Case

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Paul Lewis Hayes (defendant) faced indictment for issuing a forged check worth $88.30 and could receive up to 10 years in prison. The prosecutor proposed a plea bargain: plead guilty and receive a five-year sentence. If Hayes refused, the prosecutor threatened to seek a harsher indictment under the Habitual Criminal Act due to Hayes’ prior felonies, which could lead to a life sentence.

Hayes did not accept the deal. Consequently, the prosecutor followed through with the threat, resulting in Hayes receiving a life sentence after conviction.

Hayes challenged his sentence, arguing that the prosecutor’s actions during plea negotiations violated due process by punishing him for not pleading guilty. His case progressed through the Kentucky Court of Appeals and federal courts, culminating in a Supreme Court review to address the constitutional implications of the prosecutor’s conduct during plea bargaining.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Paul Lewis Hayes was indicted on a forgery charge.
  2. Hayes refused a plea bargain and was subsequently indicted under the Habitual Criminal Act.
  3. Hayes was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  4. The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence.
  5. Hayes filed for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which was initially denied.
  6. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the denial, prompting the Supreme Court review.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is violated when a prosecutor threatens to and subsequently seeks a harsher indictment because the accused refuses to plead guilty to the original charge.

Rule of Law

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The discretionary power of a prosecutor in charging decisions is broad, but subject to constitutional limits. It is not inherently unconstitutional for a prosecutor to present a defendant with the choice of pleading guilty for leniency or facing more severe charges if probable cause exists for those charges and the decision is not based on an arbitrary classification such as race or religion.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The Supreme Court differentiated between prosecutorial retaliation after a defendant exercises legal rights, as seen in prior cases, and the give-and-take nature of plea bargaining. The Court found that plea bargaining involves mutual benefits and does not necessarily involve coercion or retaliation.

It emphasized that while prosecutors have broad discretion within legal bounds, their actions during plea negotiations do not automatically amount to vindictiveness or coercion if they present legitimate choices based on probable cause. The Court reasoned that allowing prosecutors to use their discretion in charging decisions promotes transparency in plea bargaining and prevents the practice from returning to a more covert operation.

The majority concluded that since Hayes was properly chargeable under the recidivist statute and had been fully informed of the consequences of his decision, his due process rights were not violated when he was given the choice between pleading guilty or facing more severe charges.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, holding that the prosecutor’s conduct in this case did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dissenting Opinions

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Justice Blackmun, joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall, dissented, expressing concern that the majority’s decision permits prosecutors to use severe charges as leverage in plea bargaining, which could discourage defendants from exercising their right to trial. They argued that such prosecutorial conduct should be considered vindictive and thus unconstitutional.

Justice Powell also dissented, suggesting that due process requires more than just an acknowledgment of prosecutorial discretion and that unique circumstances such as those in this case demand protection against prosecutorial overreach.

Key Takeaways

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  1. The Supreme Court maintained that due process is not violated when a prosecutor uses legitimate prosecutorial discretion during plea bargaining, even if it involves presenting the defendant with harsher alternatives upon refusal of a plea deal.
  2. Prosecutors are entitled to broad discretion in charging decisions provided they have probable cause and their actions do not stem from arbitrary or discriminatory standards.
  3. The decision underscores a distinction between prosecutorial vindictiveness and the acceptable pressures inherent in plea bargaining negotiations.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes prosecutorial discretion and its limits in charging decisions?

Prosecutorial discretion refers to the ability of prosecutors to decide what charges to bring against a defendant, whether and how to pursue a case, and the terms of any plea deal. The limits of this discretion are dictated by the need for probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, adherence to legal standards, and avoidance of discriminatory practices based on arbitrary classifications such as race, religion, or gender.

  • For example: Suppose a prosecutor has evidence that a suspect has committed both robbery and assault. If the evidence for robbery is stronger, they might exercise their discretion to only charge for that offense. However, they must not let personal biases influence their decision or use their power capriciously to intimidate the suspect into accepting a plea deal for an offense they may not have committed.

How does due process interact with plea bargaining?

Due process in the context of plea bargaining ensures fairness in how deals are offered and accepted. It requires transparency from prosecutors about the consequences of accepting or rejecting a plea deal. Defendants must also be afforded a real choice, without coercive tactics that overstep legal boundaries or subjective discriminatory factors influencing prosecutorial judgment.

  • For example: A defendant must be made fully aware that if they reject a plea deal, they might face more severe charges supported by probable cause. However, it would breach due process if additional charges were threatened solely as punishment for choosing to go to trial, without any new evidence justifying those charges.

What differentiates acceptable prosecutorial behavior from vindictiveness in legal proceedings?

Vindictiveness typically involves punitive actions taken by prosecutors in response to defendants exercising their legal rights, like going to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain. Acceptable prosecutorial behavior includes using discretion within legal and ethical boundaries: adding charges when there’s new evidence or probable cause but not as intimidation for rejecting a deal.

  • For example: It would be vindictive for a prosecutor to increase charges because a defendant exercises their right to a jury trial. On the contrary, it would be within discretionary powers if additional charges are filed after legitimately uncovering new incriminating evidence during further investigation.


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