322 U.S. 694 (1944), 366, United States v. White

Docket Nº:No. 366
Citation:322 U.S. 694, 64 S.Ct. 1248, 88 L.Ed. 1542
Party Name:United States v. White
Case Date:June 12, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 694

322 U.S. 694 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 1248, 88 L.Ed. 1542

United States



No. 366

United States Supreme Court

June 12, 1944

Argued March 6, 1944




1. The constitutional privilege against self-incrimination is essentially a personal one, applying only to natural individuals. P. 698.

2. The papers and effects which the privilege protects must be the private property of the person claiming the privilege, or at least in his possession in a purely personal capacity. P. 699.

3. An officer of an unincorporated labor union has no right, under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Federal Constitution, to refuse to produce books and records of the union -- which are in his possession and which a federal court by a subpoena duces tecum has required to be produced -- on the ground that they might tend to incriminate the union or himself as an officer thereof and individually. P. 704.

The test of the applicability of the privilege is whether one can fairly say under all the circumstances that a particular type of organization has a character so impersonal in the scope of its membership and activities that it cannot be said to embody or represent the purely private or personal interests of its constituents, but rather to embody their common or group interests only. If so, the privilege cannot be invoked on behalf of the organization or its representatives in their official capacity. P. 701.

Page 695

4. Whether the person asserting the privilege in such case is a member of the union, and whether the union was subject to the provisions of the statute in relation to which the investigation was being made, are immaterial. P. 704.

137 F.2d 24 reversed.

MURPHY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

During the course of a grand jury investigation into alleged irregularities in the construction of the Mechanicsburg Naval Supply Depot, the District Court of the United States for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a subpoena duces tecum directed to "Local No. 542, International Union of Operating Engineers." This subpoena required the union to produce before the grand jury on January 11, 1943, copies of its constitution and bylaws and specifically enumerated union records showing its collections of work permit fees, including the amounts paid therefor, and the identity of the payors from January 1, 1942, [64 S.Ct. 1250] to the date of the issuance of the subpoena, December 28, 1942.

The United States marshal served the subpoena on the president of the union. On January 11, 1943, respondent appeared before the grand jury, describing himself as "assistant supervisor" of the union. Although he was not shown to be the authorized custodian of the union's books, he had the demanded documents in his possession. He

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had not been subpoenaed personally to testify nor personally directed by the subpoena duces tecum to produce the union's records. Moreover, there was no effort or indicated intention to examine him personally as a witness. Nevertheless he declined to produce the demanded documents

upon the ground that they might tend to incriminate Local Union 542, International Union of Operating Engineers, myself as an officer thereof, or individually.

He reiterated his refusal after consulting counsel.

He was immediately cited for contempt of court, and, during the hearing on the contempt, repeated his refusal once again. He based his refusal on the opinion of his counsel that "great uncertainty exists today as to what may or may not constitute a violation of Section 276(b), Title 40, of the United States Code."1 He made no effort, although he apparently was willing, to tender the records for the judge's inspection in support of his assertion that their contents would tend to incriminate him or the union. The District Court held his refusal inexcusable, adjudged him guilty of contempt of court, and sentenced him to thirty days in prison.

The court below reversed the District Court's judgment by a divided vote. 137 F.2d 24. The majority held that the records of an unincorporated labor union were the property of all its members, and that, if respondent were a

Page 697

union member and if the books and records would have tended to incriminate him, he properly could refuse to produce them before the grand jury. The court below accordingly remanded the case to the District Court with directions to sustain the claim of privilege if after further inquiry it should determine that respondent was in fact a member of the union and that the documents would tend to incriminate him as an individual. We granted certiorari, 320 U.S. 729, because of the novel and important question of constitutional law which is presented.2

The only issue in this case relates to the nature and scope of the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. We are not concerned here with a complete delineation of the legal status of unincorporated labor unions. We express no opinion as to the legality or desirability of incorporating such unions or as to the necessity of considering them as separate entities apart from their members for purposes other than the one posed by the narrow issue in this case. Nor do we question the obvious fact that business corporations, by virtue of their creation by the state and because of the nature and purpose of their activities, [64 S.Ct. 1251] differ in many significant respects from unions, religious bodies...

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