Friday, July 02, 2021

Pennsylvania v. Cosby and "promissory estoppel"

Incoming 1L's in my section of the University of Chicago Law School spent the better part of "Elements" learning about "promissory estoppel" drom Dennis Hutchinson. We studied a few obscure New York state cases and learned that they were little cited in later years.

Fast forward to the year 2021, with Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Cosby, [No. 39 MAP 2020 ] and we see a case about detrimental, reasonable reliance on promises made by a prosecutor to a [then-potential] criminal defendant, Bill Cosby. The majority decision is an interesting read, and includes text snippets:

Interactions between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant, including circumstances where the latter seeks enforcement of some promise or assurance made by the former, are not immune from the dictates of due process and fundamental fairness. The contours and attendant obligations of such interactions also can involve basic precepts of contract law, which inform the due process inquiry. The applicability of contract law to aspects of the criminal law has been recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States, see Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 137 (2009), by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, see McKeever v. Warden SCI-Graterford, 486 F.3d 81, 86 (3d Cir. 2007), and by this Court. See Commonwealth v. Martinez, 147 A.3d 517, 531 (Pa. 2016). In order to succeed on a claim of promissory estoppel, the aggrieved party must prove that: (1) the promisor acted in a manner that he or she should have reasonably expected to induce the other party into taking (or not taking) certain action; (2) the aggrieved party actually took such action; and (3) an injustice would result if the assurance that induced the action was not enforced. See Crouse v. Cyclops Indus., 745 A.2d 606, 610 (Pa. 2000). (...) Considered together, these authorities obligate courts to hold prosecutors to their word, to enforce promises, to ensure that defendants’ decisions are made with a full understanding of the circumstances, and to prevent fraudulent inducements of waivers of one or more constitutional rights. Prosecutors can be bound by their assurances or decisions under principles of contract law or by application of the fundamental fairness considerations that inform and undergird the due process of law. The law is clear that, based upon their unique role in the criminal justice system, prosecutors generally are bound by their assurances, particularly when defendants rely to their detriment upon those guarantees. (...) An entirely different situation arises when the decision not to prosecute is unconditional, is presented as absolute and final, or is announced in such a way that it induces the defendant to act in reliance thereupon. When a non-prosecution decision is conveyed in such a way, and when a defendant, having no indication to the contrary, detrimentally relies upon that decision, due process may warrant preclusion of the prosecution. Numerous state and federal courts have found that a defendant’s detrimental reliance upon the government’s assurances during the plea bargaining phase both implicates his due process rights and entitles him to enforcement even of unconsummated agreements. The cases are legion.23 (...) We are left with no doubt that Cosby relied to his detriment upon the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute him. The question then becomes whether that reliance was reasonable. Unreasonable reliance warrants no legal remedy. (...) For these reasons, Cosby’s convictions and judgment of sentence are vacated, and he is discharged.

A link to the majority opinion:

The link to this IPBiz post was forwarded to Professor Hutchinson.


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