341 U.S. 479 (1951), 513, Hoffman v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 513
Citation:341 U.S. 479, 71 S.Ct. 814, 95 L.Ed. 1118
Party Name:Hoffman v. United States
Case Date:May 28, 1951
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 479

341 U.S. 479 (1951)

71 S.Ct. 814, 95 L.Ed. 1118



United States

No. 513

United States Supreme Court

May 28, 1951

Argued April 25, 1951




1. Claiming that answers might tend to incriminate him of a federal offense, petitioner refused to answer certain questions asked him by a special federal grand jury making a comprehensive investigation of violations of numerous federal criminal statutes and conspiracies to violate them. He had been publicly charged with being known as an underworld character and a racketeer with a 20-year police record, including a prison sentence on a narcotics charge. The questions he refused to answer pertained to the nature of his present occupation and his contacts and connections with, and knowledge of the whereabouts of, a fugitive witness sought by the same grand jury and for whom a bench warrant had been requested. The judge who had impaneled the grand jury and was familiar with these circumstances found no real and substantial danger of incrimination to petitioner and ordered him to answer. Petitioner stated that he would not obey the order, and he was convicted of criminal contempt.

Held: The conviction is reversed. Pp. 480-490.

(a) The privilege against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment extends not only to answers that would in themselves support a conviction under a federal criminal statute, but also to those which would furnish a link in the chain of evidence needed to prosecute the claimant for a federal crime. Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159. P. 486.

(b) To sustain the privilege, it need only be evident from the implications of the question, in the setting in which it is asked, that a responsive answer to the question or an explanation of why it cannot be answered might be dangerous because injurious disclosure could result. Pp. 486-487.

(c) In this case, the court should have considered that the chief occupation of some persons involves evasion of federal criminal laws and that truthful answers by petitioner to the questions as to the nature of his business might have disclosed that he was engaged in such proscribed activity. Pp. 487-488.

Page 480

(d) Answers to the questions as to his contacts and connections with the fugitive witness and knowledge of his whereabouts at the time might have exposed petitioner to peril of prosecution for federal offenses ranging from obstruction to conspiracy. P. 488.

2. Two weeks after his conviction of contempt and denial of bail pending appeal, petitioner filed in the District Court a paper captioned "Petition for Reconsideration of Allowance of Bail Pending Appeal," accompanied by an affidavit and exhibits explaining his refusal to answer the questions and presenting facts to justify his fear that answers would tend to incriminate him. These papers were filed in the Court of Appeals as a supplemental record on appeal, but that Court struck them from the record and affirmed the conviction.

Held: the supplemental record should have been considered by the Court of Appeals, since it was actually directed to the power of the committing court to discharge the contemnor for good cause -- a power which courts should be solicitous to invoke when important constitutional objections are renewed. Pp. 489-490.

185 F.2d 617 reversed.

In a federal district court, petitioner was convicted of contempt for refusal to answer questions before a federal grand jury. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 185 F.2d 617. This Court granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 946. Reversed, p. 490.

CLARK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner has been convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to obey a federal court order requiring him to answer certain questions asked in a grand jury investigation. He raises here important issues as to the application of the privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment, claimed to justify his refusal.

Page 481

A special federal grand jury was convened at Philadelphia on September 14, 1950, to investigate frauds upon the Federal Government, including violations of the customs, narcotics, and internal revenue liquor laws of the United States, the White Slave Traffic Act, perjury, bribery, and other federal criminal laws, and conspiracy to commit all such offenses. In response to subpoena petitioner appeared to testify on the day the grand jury was empaneled, and was examined on October 3. The pertinent interrogation, in which he refused to answer, follows:

Q. What do you do now, Mr. Hoffman?

A. I refuse to answer.

[71 S.Ct. 816]

Q. Have you been in the same undertaking since the first of the year?

A. I don't understand the question.

Q. Have you been doing the same thing you are doing now since the first of the year?

A. I refuse to answer.

Q. Do you know Mr. William Weisberg?

A. I do.

Q. How long have you known him?

A. Practically twenty years, I guess.

Q. When did you last see him?

A. I refuse to answer.

Q. Have you seen him this week?

A. I refuse to answer.

Q. Do you know that a subpoena has been issued for Mr. Weisberg?

A. I heard about it in Court.

Q. Have you talked with him on the telephone this week?

A. I refuse to answer.

Q. Do you know where Mr. William Weisberg is now?

A. I refuse to answer.

Page 482

It was stipulated that petitioner declined to answer on the ground that his answers might tend to incriminate him of a federal offense.

Petitioner's claim of privilege was challenged...

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