282 U.S. 687 (1931), 370, Alford v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 370
Citation:282 U.S. 687, 51 S.Ct. 218, 75 L.Ed. 624
Party Name:Alford v. United States
Case Date:February 24, 1931
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 687

282 U.S. 687 (1931)

51 S.Ct. 218, 75 L.Ed. 624

Alford

v.

United States

No. 370

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 24, 1931

Argued January 6, 1931

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Cross-examination of a witness is a matter of right. P. 691.

2. Its permissible purposes include the identification of the witness with his environment and the revelation of facts tending to discredit his testimony. P. 691.

3. The rule that the examiner must indicate the purpose of his inquiry does not, in general, apply to cross-examination. P. 692.

4. The extent of cross-examination with respect to an appropriate subject of inquiry is within the sound discretion of the trial court. P. 694.

5. Although it is the duty of the court to protect a witness from questions which go beyond the bounds of proper cross-examination merely to harass, annoy or humiliate him, there is no duty to protect him from being discredited, except when his constitutional right against self-incrimination is involved and properly invoked. P. 694.

6. In a criminal prosecution for using the mails to defraud in violation of § 215 of the Criminal Code, the Government called as a witness a former employee of the defendant, who testified to uncorroborated conversations of the defendant of a damaging character. Upon cross-examination, the witness was asked "Where do you live?," and another question as to his place of residence, but these questions were excluded on the Government's objection that they were immaterial and not proper cross-examination. Counsel urged as an additional reason for asking the excluded questions that he had been informed that the witness was then in the custody of the federal authorities, and that such fact might be brought out on cross-examination to show whatever bias or prejudice the witness might have. But the court adhered to its previous ruling.

Held:

(1) The case was a proper one for searching cross-examination, and the question "Where do you live?" was not only an appropriate preliminary to the cross-examination, but, on its face, was an essential step in identifying the witness with his environment. P. 692.

(2) The defense was entitled to show by cross-examination that the testimony of the witness was affected by fear or favor growing out of his detention, and it was immaterial whether he was in

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custody because of his participation in the transaction for which the defendant was indicted or for some other offense. P. 693.

(3) The ruling of the trial court, cutting off in limine 11 inquiry on a subject with respect to which the defense was entitled to a reasonable cross-examination, was an abuse of discretion and prejudicial error. P. 694.

41 F.2d 157 reversed.

Certiorari, post, p. 826, to review a judgment affirming a judgment of the district court, wherein the petitioner was convicted for using the mails to defraud.

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted in the District Court for Southern California of using the mails to defraud in violation of § 215 of the Criminal Code. This Court granted certiorari to review a judgment of affirmance by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which upheld certain rulings of the trial court upon the evidence. 41 F.2d 157.

In the course of the trial, the government called as a witness a former employee of petitioner. On direct examination, he gave damaging testimony with respect to various transactions of accused, including conversations with the witness when others were not present, and statement of accused to salesmen under his direction, whom the witness did not identify. Upon cross-examination, questions seeking to elicit the witness' place of residence were excluded on the government's objection that they were immaterial and not proper cross-examination. Counsel for the defense insisted that the questions were

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proper cross-examination, and that the jury was entitled to know "who the witness is, where he lives and what his business is." Relevant excerpts of the record are printed in the margin. *

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[51 S.Ct. 219] Later, the jury having been excused, counsel for the defense urged, as an "additional" ground for asking the excluded questions, that he had been informed that the witness was then in the custody of the federal authorities, and that such fact might be brought out on cross-examination "for the purpose of showing whatever bias or prejudice he may have." But the court adhered to its previous rulings, saying that, if the witness had been convicted of a felony that fact might be proved, but not that he was detained in custody.

The court of appeals, after stating that it is customary to allow cross-examination of a witness with reference to

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his place of residence, upheld the trial court, saying, p. 160:

The purpose of such evidence is to identify the witness and to some extent given proper background for the interpretation of his testimony. In this case, however, the counsel indicated his purpose to use the information for the purpose of discrediting the witness. It is part of the obligation of a trial judge to protect witnesses against evidence tending to discredit the witness unless such evidence is reasonably called for by exigencies of the case. A witness is not on trial, and has no means of protecting himself. Here, it was evident that the counsel for the appellant desired to discredit the witness without, so far as is shown, in any way connecting the expected answer with a matter on trial. If it had been contended that the witness was in custody because of his participation in the transaction with which the appellant was charged, and if it was sought to show that he was testifying under some promise of immunity, it would undoubtedly have been prejudicial error to have excluded such testimony; but counsel avowed no such purpose, and indicated that the proposed question was merely in pursuit of a fishing expedition by which he hoped to discredit the witness. The witness was examined at great length concerning his relation to the appellant, and great latitude was accorded in that examination.

Cross-examination of a witness is a matter of right. The Ottawa, 3 Wall. 268, 271. Its permissible purposes, among others, are that the witness may be identified with his community so that independent testimony may be sought and offered of his reputation for veracity in his own neighborhood, cf. Khan v. Zemansky, 59 Cal.App. 324, 327ff, 210 P. 529; 3 Wigmore, Evidence (2d ed.) § 1368 I.(1)(b); that the jury may interpret his testimony in the light reflected upon it by knowledge of his environment, Kirschner v. State, 9 Wis. 140; Wilbur v. Flood, 16...

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