221 U.S. 361 (1911), 759, Wilson v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 759, 760, 788
Citation:221 U.S. 361, 31 S.Ct. 538, 55 L.Ed. 771
Party Name:Wilson v. United States
Case Date:May 15, 1911
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 361

221 U.S. 361 (1911)

31 S.Ct. 538, 55 L.Ed. 771



United States

No. 759, 760, 788

United States Supreme Court

May 15, 1911

Argued March 2, 3, 1911




Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43, followed to effect that a witness properly subpoenaed cannot refuse to answer questions propounded by the grand jury on the ground that there is no cause or specific charge pending.

The ad testificandum clause is not essential to the validity of a subpoena duces tecum, and the production of papers by one having them under his control may be enforced independently of his testimony.

Where the subpoena duces tecum contains the usual ad testificandum clause, it is not necessary to have the person producing the papers sworn as a witness. The papers may be proved by others.

The right of one responding to a subpoena duces tecum to show why he need not produce does not depend on the ad testificandum clause, but is incidental to the requirement to produce.

Corporate existence implies amenability to legal powers, and a subpoena duces tecum may be directed to a corporation.

A corporation is under a duty to produce records, books, and papers in its possession when they may be properly required in the administration of justice.

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A corporation is not relieved from responding to a subpoena duces tecum or from producing the documents required by reason of the provisions of §§ 877 and 829, Rev.Stat., or those of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

A subpoena duces tecum which is suitably specific and properly limited in its scope, and calls for the production of documents which, as against their lawful owner to whom the writ is directed, the party procuring its issuance is entitled to have produced does not violate the unreasonable search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment, and the constitutional privilege against testifying against himself cannot be raised for his personal benefit by an officer of the corporation having the documents in his possession.

A lawful command to a corporation is, in effect, a command to its officers, who may be punished for contempt for disobedience of its terms.

An officer of a corporation is protected by the self-incrimination provisions of the Fifth Amendment against the compulsory production of his private books and papers, but this privilege does not extend to books of the corporation in his possession.

An officer of a corporation cannot refuse to produce documents of a corporation on the ground that they would incriminate him simply because he himself wrote or signed them, and this even if indictments are pending against him.

Physical custody of incriminating documents does not protect the custodian against their compulsory production. The privilege which exists as to private papers cannot be maintained.

Under the visitatorial power of the State, and the authority of Congress over corporate activities within the domain subject to Congress, a corporation must submit its books and papers whenever properly required so to do, and cannot resist on the ground of self-incrimination, even if the inquiry may be to detect and prevent violations of law. Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43, 74.

An officer of a corporation cannot withhold its books to save it, or, if he is implicated in its violation of law, to protect himself, from disclosures, although he may decline to utter on the witness stand any self-incriminating word.

An officer cannot withhold from a grand jury corporate documents in his possession because the inquiry was directed against the corporation itself.

Notwithstanding English views as to the extent of protection against self-incrimination the duties of corporations and officers thereof are to be determined by our laws.

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221 U.S. Argument for Plaintiff in Error and Appellant.

The facts, which involve the validity of a subpoena duces tecum issued to a corporation, and the right of an officer thereof to refuse to produce the documents required by such subpoena on the ground that they tended to incriminate him, are stated in the opinion.

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HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the court.

These three cases involve the same question. The first is a writ of error to the Circuit Court to review a judgment committing the plaintiff in error for contempt. The second is an appeal from an order of the Circuit Court dismissing a writ of habeas corpus sued out after such commitment.

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The third is an appeal from an order dismissing a writ of habeas corpus by which a discharge was sought from a later commitment for a similar contempt.

The contempt consisted in the refusal of the plaintiff in error and appellant, Christopher C. Wilson, to permit the inspection by a grand jury of letter press copy books in his possession. The books belonged to a corporation of which he was president, and were required to be produced by a subpoena duces tecum.

The circumstances were these: the grand jury empaneled in the Circuit Court for some time had been inquiring into alleged violations of §§ 5440 and 5480 of the United States Revised Statutes by Wilson and others. Wilson was the president of the United Wireless Telegraph Company, a corporation organized under the laws of the State of Maine. On August 3, 1910, the grand jury found two indictments against him and certain officers, directors and stockholders of this corporation, the one charging fraudulent use of the mails and the other a conspiracy for such use. The grand jury continued its investigations, and, on October 7, 1910, a subpoena duces tecum was issued (set forth in the margin *), which was directed to the

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United Wireless Telegraph Company, requiring its appearance before the grand jury and the production by it of the letter press copy books of the company

containing copies of letters and telegrams signed or purporting to be signed by the President of said company during the month of May and June, 1909; in regard to an alleged violation of the statutes of the United States by C.C. Wilson.

Service was made upon the company by service upon Wilson, as president, and upon its secretary and two directors. On the return day, Wilson appeared before the grand jury, and in response to questions, when not under oath, stated that he answered the call of the United Wireless Telegraph Company and declined to answer further questions until he was sworn, and having been sworn, and being asked whether or not the company produced the letter press copy books called for, he filed a written statement in which, after describing the subpoena, he said:

III. Said letter press copy books for the months of May and June, 1909, in said subpoena mentioned during said months of May and June, 1909, were kept regularly in my office as President of said corporation, and were regularly used by me and, for the most part, if not entirely, by me only, and contained copies of my personal and other correspondence, as well as copies of the correspondence relating to the business and affairs of said corporation. For the greater part of the time during and since May and June, 1909, and all the time during the last month and

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more, said letter press copy books have been and still are in my possession, custody and control, and as against any other officer or employee of said corporation, or any other person, I have been entitled to such possession, custody and control. I did not secure and have not at any time held possession of said letter press copy books in anticipation that any subpoena for their production would be served upon me or said corporation, or for the purpose of evading any subpoena or other legal process which might be served upon me or said corporation.

He alleged that he was the "C.C. Wilson" mentioned in the subpoena as the one against whom the inquiry was directed, and described the pending indictments. He stated that the letter press copy books were essential to the preparation of his defense, and that he was using them for that purpose; that he believed that the matters [31 S.Ct. 540] therein contained would tend to incriminate him, and that he "should not be compelled, directly or indirectly, to furnish or produce said letter press copy books as called for by said subpoena," nor to testify in regard to their contents, nor permit them to be used against him. He added that he had the books with him, but that he declined to deliver them to the grand jury, insisting that his refusal was in entire good faith.

The grand jury presented the matter to the court, and Wilson was adjudged to be in contempt and was committed to the custody of the marshal

until he shall cease to obstruct and impede the United Wireless Telegraph Company from complying with the subpoena duces tecum attached to the above mentioned presentment, or otherwise purge himself from this contempt.

This is the judgment which is the subject of review in the first case (No. 759).

Wilson then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the commitment was illegal for the reason (1) that the court was without jurisdiction to entertain

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the charge of contempt, (2) that there was no "cause" or "action" pending in the court between the United States and any party mentioned in the subpoena, in which the petitioner could be required to testify or give evidence, (3) that the grand jury was not in the exercise of its legitimate authority in prosecuting the investigation set out in the presentment, its powers being limited to the investigation of specific charges against particular persons, and (4) that the...

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