Charles Mason v. United States

Decision Date04 June 1917
Docket NumberNo. 604,604
Citation37 S.Ct. 621,244 U.S. 362,61 L.Ed. 1198
PartiesCHARLES MASON and A. Hanson, Plffs. in Err., v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. George B. Grigsby for plaintiffs in error.

Solicitor General Davis and Mr. Robert Szold for defendant in error.

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

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 5th Amendment that no person 'shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.'

During the trial of Aaron Burr and 'Re Willie,' Fed. Cas. No. 14,692e, 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 preserved to a reasonable extent, and according to the true intention of the rule and of the exception to that rule, by observing that course which it is conceived courts have generally observed. It is this: When a question is propounded, it belongs to the court to consider and to decide whether any direct answer to it can implicate the witness. If this be decided in the negative, then he may answer it without violating the privilege which is secured to him by law. If a direct answer to it may criminate himself, then he must be the sole judge what his answer would be.' The constitutional protection against self-incrimination 'is confined to real danger, and does not extend to remote possibilities out of the ordinary course of law.' Heike v. United States, 227 U. S. 131, 144, 57 L. ed. 450, 455, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 226, Ann. Cas. 1914C, 128; Brown v. Walker, 161 U. S. 591, 599, 600, 40 L. ed. 819, 821, 822, 5 Inters. Com. Rep. 369, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 644.

In Reg. v. Boyes (1861) 1 Best & S. 311, 329, 330, 121 Eng. Reprint, 730, Cockburn Ch. J., said:

'It was also contended that a bare possibility of legal peril was sufficient to entitle a witness to protection; nay, further, that the witness was the sole judge as to whether his evidence would bring him into danger of the law; and that the...

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