Brown v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation3 L.Ed.2d 609,79 S.Ct. 539,359 U.S. 41
Docket NumberNo. 4,4
PartiesEmanuel BROWN, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
Decision Date09 March 1959

See 359 U.S. 976, 79 S.Ct. 873.

Mr. Myron L. Shapiro, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. John F. Davis, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment for criminal contempt stemming from his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury. His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, 247 F.2d 332. The case was brought here primarily to review the validity of the procedure which resulted in the contempt adjudication. 356 U.S. 926, 78 S.Ct. 713, 2 L.Ed.2d 758. Other issues relate to the nature and extent of immunity from prosecution conferred by § 205(e) of the Interstate Commerce Act, as amended,1 and the severity of the punishment imposed by the District Court.

A grand jury in the Southern District of New York investigating possible violations of Part II of the Interstate Commerce Act2 issued a subpoena directing the petitioner to appear and testify as to 'all and everything which you may know in regard to an alleged violation of Sections 309, 322 Title 49, United States Code (49 U.S.C.A. §§ 309, 322).' In response to this subpoena the petitioner appeared and, after being sworn, answered a few preliminary questions. He was then asked six further questions concededly relevant to the grand jury's inquiry. These he refused to answer upon the ground of possible self-incrimination. After consulting with his lawyer, who was continuously present in an adjoining anteroom, the petitioner persisted in his refusal to answer, although advised at length by the Assistant United States Attorney that the applicable statute conferred complete immunity from prosecution as to any matter concerning which the petitioner might testify, and that, therefore, 'you do not have any privilege to plead the Fifth Amendment.'

Thereupon the scene of the proceedings shifted to the courtroom, where the grand jury sought the aid of the district judge. After being apprised of what had transpired in the grand jury room, the district judge heard extensive argument by counsel as to the scope of immunity afforded a grand jury witness under the applicable statute.

Following a weekend recess the district judge ruled that under the statute the petitioner would be accorded immunity as extensive as the privilege he had asserted, and directed that the petitioner therefore return to the grand jury room and answer the questions. Later the same day the grand jury again returned to the courtroom 'to request the aid and assistance of the Court.' The district judge was advised through the official reporter that the petitioner had refused to obey the court's order to answer the questions.

The judge then addressed the same questions to the petitioner in the grand jury's presence. Each question was met with a refusal to answer upon the ground of possible self-incrimination. The petitioner was thereupon explicitly directed by the judge to answer each question, and he just as explicitly refused. The judge inquired whether the petitioner would persist in his refusal if he returned to the grand jury room and were again asked the questions there. The petitioner replied that he would. After further argument by counsel, the district judge held the petitioner in contempt and imposed sentence.

Throughout the proceedings in the courtroom the petitioner was represented by counsel, who unsuccessfully advanced three basic contentions: (1) A witness who testifies before a grand jury investigating offenses under the Motor Carrier Act is accorded no statutory immunity from subsequent prosecution based upon his testimony. (2) Even if some immunity is conferred, it is not coextensive with the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. (3) In any event, the District Court, by adjudging the petitioner in criminal contempt without following the procedural requirements of Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.A., deprived the petitioner of due process of law. The same contentions are advanced here. In addition, we are asked to hold that the sentence of 15 months' imprisonment was an abuse of the District Court's discretion.

In determining that § 205(e) of the Motor Carrier Act clothed the petitioner with statutory immunity coextensive with his constitutional privilege not to incriminate himself, the District Court and the Court of Appeals were plainly correct. The relevant statutory language is unambiguous: '* * * and any person subpenaed or testifying in connection with any matter under investigation under this chapter shall have the same rights, privileges, and immunities and be subject to the same duties, liabilities, and penalties as though such matter arose under chapter 1 of this title (Part I of the Interstate Commerce Act) * * *.'3 The obvious purpose and effect of this language is to confer the same immunity upon a witness testifying in an investigation under Part II of the Interstate Commerce Act as is conferred upon one testifying in an investigation under Part I. Both Part I and Part, II contain criminal sanctions, and the power of a grand jury to investigate violations of either Part is unquestioned.

The statute which confers immunity upon a witness testifying in a grand jury investigation under Part I was enacted in 1893.4 For more than half a century it has been settled that this statute confers immunity from prosecution coextensive with the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, and that the witness may not therefore lawfully refuse to testify. Brown v. Walker, 1896, 161 U.S. 591, 16 S.Ct. 644, 40 L.Ed. 819. The context in which the doctrine originated and the history of its reaffirmance through the years have been so recently re-examined by this Court in Ullmann v. United States, 350 U.S. 422, 76 S.Ct. 497, 100 L.Ed. 511, as to make it a needless exercise to retrace that ground here. Suffice it to repeat that Brown v. Walker has become 'part of our constitutional fabric.' 350 U.S. at page 438, 76 S.Ct. at page 506. It is thus clearly too late in the day to question the constitutional sufficiency of the immunity provided under Part I of the Act.

In contending that this immunity is not fully imported into Part II the petitioner grasps at straws. He points out that the above-quoted language of 49 U.S.C. § 305(d), 49 U.S.C.A. § 305(d), which incorporates into Part II the immunity provisions of Part I is separated by only a semi-colon from a provision which gives the Commission investigative powers under Part II. See footnote 3. He would therefore have us rewrite the section so as to make the immunity provision applicable only to witnesses appearing before the Commission, not to those appearing before a grand jury or in a court. Such a construction would not only do violence to plain language, but also, as the Court of Appeals observed, to the whole structure of the Interstate Commerce Act. See 247 F.2d at pages 336, 337.

The petitioner argues alternatively that even if some immunity is granted by Part II to a grand jury witness, the immunity is not commensurate with that of Part I, and that its scope is therefore constitutionally insufficient. The contention is that § 305(d) provides immunity from prosecution only for offenses related to violations of the Motor Carrier Act itself because of the clause appearing at the beginning of the section'So far as may be necessary for the purposes of this chapter.' See footnote 3. Assuming that this clause limits the immunity provision of the section at all, it clearly limits only the class of witnesses to whom the immunity will attach, not the scope of the immunity conferred. The petitioner 'subpoenaed * * * in connection with (a) matter under investigation under this chapter * * * necessary for the purposes of this chapter' was clearly within that class.

Congress thus provided that the petitioner could not and would not incriminate himself by answering the questions put to him. He could not 'be prosecuted or subjected to any penalty or forfeiture for or on account of any transaction, matter or thing, concerning which he (might) testify * * *.' 49 U.S.C. § 46, 49 U.S.C.A. § 46. He therefore had an unqualified duty to answer the questions as he was directed to do.

We turn then to the petitioner's attack upon the validity of the procedure which the District Court followed in adjudicating him in contempt.5 This procedure, it is contended, robbed the petitioner not only of the safe- guards of notice, opportunity to prepare a defense, and a hearing, but also of the presumption of innocence and other rights basic to a fair criminal trial.

In view of the apparent breadth of the petitioner's argument, it may promote analysis of this aspect of the case to emphasize at the outset what it does not involve. This is not a situation where the contempt was in any sense personal to the judge, raising issues of possible unfairness resulting from the operation of human emotions. Cf. Coke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517, 539, 45 S.Ct. 390, 396, 69 L.Ed. 767; Sacher v. United States, 343 U.S. 1, 72 S.Ct. 451, 96 L.Ed. 717; Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11, 75 S.Ct. 11, 99 L.Ed. 11. This is not a case of 'misbehavior' involving factual issues as to the nature of the petitioner's conduct and whether it occurred in the 'presence' of the court or 'so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice.' 6 Cf. Ex parte Savin, 131 U.S. 267, 9 S.Ct. 699, 33 L.Ed. 150; Ex parte Cuddy, 131 U.S. 280, 9 S.Ct. 703, 33 L.Ed. 154; Nye v. United States, 313 U.S. 33, 44—53, 61 S.Ct. 810, 813—818, 85 L.Ed. 1172. Moreover, the petitioner does not question the power of the court to punish disobedience of its lawful order as a criminal contempt,7 and to do so summarily, if the disobedience occurs in the...

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