244 U.S. 362 (1917), 604, Mason v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 604
Citation:244 U.S. 362, 37 S.Ct. 621, 61 L.Ed. 1198
Party Name:Mason v. United States
Case Date:June 04, 1917
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 362

244 U.S. 362 (1917)

37 S.Ct. 621, 61 L.Ed. 1198



United States

No. 604

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1917

Submitted April 11, 1917




The Fifth Amendment does not relieve a witness from answering merely on his own declaration or judgment that an answer might incriminate him; whether he must answer is determinable by the trial court in the exercise of its sound discretion, and unless there is reasonable ground, as distinct from a remote or speculative possibility, to apprehend that a direct answer may prove dangerous to the witness, his answer should be compelled.

In the absence of manifest error, the ruling of a trial judge upon a witness' objection that an answer may incriminate him will not be reversed by this Court.


The case is stated in the opinion.

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MCREYNOLDS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiffs in error were separately called to testify before a grand jury at Nome, Alaska, engaged in investigating a charge of gambling against six other men. Both were duly sworn. After stating that he was sitting at a table in the Arctic Billiard Parlors when these men were there arrested, Mason refused to answer two questions, claiming so to do might tend to incriminate him. (1) "Was there a game of cards being played on this particular evening at the table at which you were sitting?" (2) "Was there a game of cards being played at another table at this time?" Having said that, at the specified time and place he also was sitting at a table, Hanson made the same claim and refused to answer two questions. (1) "If, at this time or just prior to this time that yourself and others were arrested in the Arctic Billiard Parlors, if you saw anyone there playing "stud poker" or `pangingi?'" (2) "If, at this same time you saw anyone playing a game of cards at the table at which you were sitting?"

The foreman of the grand jury promptly reported the foregoing facts, and the judge at once heard the recalcitrant witnesses; but, as the record contains no detailed statement of what then occurred, we cannot know the exact circumstances. The court, being of opinion "that each and all of said questions are proper and that the answers thereto would not tend to incriminate the witnesses," directed them to return before the grand jury and reply. Appearing there, Mason again refused to answer the first question propounded to him, but, half-yielding

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to frustration, said in response to the second, "I don't know." Hanson refused to answer either question.

[37 S.Ct. 622] A second report was presented by the foreman; the witnesses were once more brought into court, and, after hearing evidence adduced by both sides and arguments of counsel, they were adjudged in contempt. It was further ordered

that they each be fined in the sum of $100, and that they each be imprisoned until they comply with the orders of the court by answering the questions.

Immediately following this order, they made answers, but these are not set out in the record. The fines are unpaid, and we are asked to reverse the trial court's action in undertaking to impose them because it conflicts with the inhibition of the Fifth Amendment that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

During the trial of Aaron Burr, In re Willie, 25 Fed.Cas. No. 14,692e, pp. 38-39, the witness was required to answer notwithstanding his refusal upon the ground that he might thereby incriminate himself. Chief Justice Marshall announced the applicable doctrine as follows:

When two principles come in conflict with each other, the court must give them both a reasonable construction, so as to preserve them both to a reasonable extent. The principle which entitles the United States to the testimony of every citizen, and the principle by which every witness is privileged not to accuse himself, can neither of them be entirely disregarded. They are believed both to be...

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