Costello v. United States

Decision Date05 March 1956
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
PartiesFrank COSTELLO, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 351 U.S. 904, 76 S.Ct. 692.

Messrs. Osmond K. Fraenkel, Morris Shilensky, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Marvin E. Frankel, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to consider a single question: "May a defendant be required to stand trial and a conviction be sustained where only hearsay evidence was presented to the grand jury which indicted him?" 350 U.S. 819, 76 S.Ct. 48.

Petitioner, Frank Costello, was indicted for wilfully attempting to evade payment of income taxes due the United States for the years 1947, 1948 and 1949.1 The charge was that petitioner falsely and fraudulently reported less income than he and his wife actually received during the taxable years in question. Petitioner promptly filed a motion for inspection of the minutes of the grand jury and for a dismissal of the indictment. His motion was based on an affidavit stating that he was firmly convinced there could have been no legal or competent evidence before the grand jury which indicted him since he had reported all his income and paid all taxes due. The motion was denied. At the trial which followed the Government offered evidence designed to show increases is Costello's net worth in an attempt to prove that he had received more income during the years in question than he had reported.2 To establish its case the Government called and examined 144 witnesses and introduced 368 exhibits. All of the testimony and documents related to business transactions and expenditures by petitioner and his wife. The prosecution concluded its case by calling three government agents. Their investigations had produced the evidence used against petitioner at the trial. They were allowed to summarize the vast amount of evidence already heard and to introduce computations showing, if correct, that petitioner and his wife had received far greater income than they had reported. We have held such summarizations admissible in a 'net worth' case like this. United States v. Johnson, 319 U.S. 503, 63 S.Ct. 1233, 87 L.Ed. 1546.

Counsel for petitioner asked each government witness at the trial whether he had appeared before the grand jury which returned the indictment. This cross-examination developed the fact that the three investigating officers had been the only witnesses before the grand jury. After the Government concluded its case, petitioner again moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the only evidence before the grand jury was 'hearsay,' since the three officers had no firsthand knowledge of the transactions upon which their computations were based. Nevertheless the trial court again refused to dismiss the indictment, and petitioner was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed,3 holding that the indictment was valid even though the sole evidence before the grand jury was hearsay.4 Petitioner here urges: (1) that an indictment based solely on hearsay evidence violates that part of the Fifth Amendment providinng that 'No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury * * *' and (2) that if the Fifth Amendment does not invalidate an indictment based solely on hearsay we should now lay down such a rule for the guidance of federal courts. See McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, 340 341, 63 S.Ct. 608, 612—613, 87 L.Ed. 819.

The Fifth Amendment provides that federal prosecutions for capital or otherwise infamous crimes must be instituted by presentments or indictments of grand juries. But neither the Fifth Amendment nor any other constitutional provision prescribes the kind of evidence upon which grand juries must act. The grand jury is an English institution, brought to this country by the early colonists and incorporated in the Constitution by the Founders. There is every reason to believe that our constitutional grand jury was intended to operate substantially like its English progenitor. The basic purpose of the English grand jury was to provide a fair method for instituting criminal proceedings against persons believed to have committed crimes. Grand jurors were selected from the body of the people and their work was not hampered by rigid procedural or evidential rules. In fact, grand jurors could act on their own knowledge and were free to make their presentments or indictments on such information as they deemed satisfactory. Despite its broad power to institute criminal proceedings the grand jury grew in popular favor with the years. It acquired an independence in England free from control by the Crown or judges. Its adoption in our Constitution as the sole method for preferring charges in serious criminal cases shows the high place it held as an instrument of justice. And in this country as in England of old the grand jury has convened as a body of laymen, free from technical rules, acting in secret, pledged to indict no one because of prejudice and to free no one because of special favor. As late as 1927 an English historian could say that English grand juries were still free to act on their own knowledge if they pleased to do so. 5 And in 1852 Mr. Justice Nelson on circuit could say 'No case has been cited, nor have we been able to find any, furnishing an authority for looking into and revising the judgment of the grand jury upon the evidence, for the purpose of determining whether or not the finding was founded upon sufficient proof * * *.' United States v. Reed, 27 Fed.Cas. pages 727, 738, No. 16,134. 6

In Holt v. United States, 218 U.S. 245, 31 S.Ct. 2, 4, 54 L.Ed. 1021, this Court had to decide whether an indictment should be quashed because supported in part by incompetent evidence. Aside from the incompetent evidence 'there was very little evidence against the accused.' The Court refused to hold that such an indictment should be quashed, pointing out that 'The abuses of criminal practice would be enhanced if indictments could be upset on such a ground.' 218 U.S. at page 248, 31 S.Ct. at page 4. The same thing is true where as here all the evidence before the grand jury was in the nature of 'hearsay.' If indictments were to be held open to challenge on the ground that there was inadequate or incompetent evidence before the grand jury, the resulting delay would be great indeed. The result of such a rule would be that before trial on the merits a defendant could always insist on a kind of preliminary trial to determine the competency and adequacy of the evidence before the grand jury. This is not required by the Fifth Amendment. An indictment returned by a legally constituted and unbiased grand jury,7 like an information drawn by the prosecutor, if valid on its face, is enough to call for trial of the charge on the merits. The Fifth Amendment requires nothing more.

Petitioner urges that this Court should exercise its power to supervise the administration of justice in fed- eral courts and establish a rule permitting defendants to challenge indictments on the ground that they are not supported by adequate or competent evidence. No persuasive reasons are advanced for establishing such a rule. It would run counter to the whole history of the grand jury institution, in which laymen conduct their inquiries unfettered by technical rules. Netiehr justice nor the concept of a fair trial requires such a change. In a trial on the merits, defendants are entitled to a strict observance of all the rules designed to bring about a fair verdict. Defendants are not entitled, however, to a rule which would result in interminable delay but add...

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1917 cases
  • State v. Mitchell
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • July 1, 1986
    ...of the inadequacy or incompetence of the evidence adduced before the grand jury to support it. Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 362, 76 S.Ct. 406, 408, 100 L.Ed. 397 (1956); Holt v. United States, 218 U.S. 245, 247, 31 S.Ct. 2, 4, 54 L.Ed. 1021 (1910). Even where an indictment is ba......
  • State v. Stepney
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • January 12, 1981
    ...should not apply. State v. Stallings, 154 Conn. 272, 280, 224 A.2d 718. Practice Book, 1978, § 611. See Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 363, 76 S.Ct. 406, 408, 100 L.Ed. 397. During the examination of witnesses by the grand jury, neither the court, the state's attorney nor an attor......
  • United States v. Svete
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Florida
    • March 11, 2014
    ...previous testimony to a subsequent grand jury); United States v. Cathey, 591 F.2d 268, 272-73 n.5 (5th Cir. 1979). In Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 363 (1956), the Supreme Court stated: "[a]n indictment returned by a legally constituted and unbiased grand jury, like an informatio......
  • United States v. Known
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • December 15, 2015
    ...and unbiased grand jury . . . if valid on its face, is enough to call for trial of the charge on the merits." Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 363 (1956). Courts should refuse to quash an indictment even if "all the evidence before the grand jury was in the nature of 'hearsay.'" Id.......
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17 books & journal articles
  • Unbridled Prosecutorial Discretion and Standardless Death Penalty Policies: the Unconstitutionality of the Washington Capital Punishment Statutory Scheme
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 7-02, December 1983
    • Invalid date
    ...129. 378 U.S. 1, 6-9 (1964). 130. Hurtado, 110 U.S. at 553-54 (Harlan, J., dissenting) (emphasis added). 131. Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 362 132. 350 U.S. 359 (1956). 133. Id. at 362 (emphasis added). 134. 370 U.S. 375 (1962). 135. Id. at 390; accord, Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. ......
  • Criminal Justice Secrets
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review No. 59-4, October 2022
    • October 1, 2022
    ...of independent attorneys—“amici”—for guidance on these issues but has no obligation to do so. See id. 62. See Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 362 (1956) (explaining that “[t]here is every reason to believe that our constitutional grand jury was intended to operate substantially lik......
  • Making the Fourth Amendment 'Real' in Grand Jury Proceedings
    • United States
    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy No. 19-2, April 2021
    • April 1, 2021
    ...“inquisitors and informers[.]” See Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, supra note 38. 49. See Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 362 (1956) (“There is every reason to believe that our constitutional grand jury was intended to operate substantially like its English progeni......
  • Racial Justice and Federal Habeas Corpus as Postconviction Relief from State Convictions
    • United States
    • Mercer University School of Law Mercer Law Reviews No. 69-2, January 2018
    • Invalid date
    ...went directly at the commitment to eliminating racism in the criminal justice system. See id. at 551. Contra Costello v. United States, 350 U.S. 359, 363-64 (1956).496. Rose, 443 U.S. at 551. 497. Id. at 555-56. The Court stated, As this Court repeatedly has emphasized, such discrimination ......
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