United States v. White

Decision Date12 June 1944
Docket NumberNo. 366,366
Citation64 S.Ct. 1248,322 U.S. 694,88 L.Ed. 1542,152 A.L.R. 1202
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Tom C. Clark, Asst. Atty. Gen., for petitioner.

Mr. Robert J. Fitzsimmons, of New York City, for respondent.

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 by-laws 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, 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 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 (40 U.S.C.A. § 276b).'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. 3 Cir., 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 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, 64 S.Ct. 189, 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, differ in many significant respects from unions, religious bodies, trade associations, social clubs and other types of organizations, and accordingly owe different obligations to the federal and state gov- ernments. Our attention is directed solely to the right of an officer of a union to claim the privilege against self-incrimination under the circumstances here presented.

Respondent contends that an officer of an unincorporated labor union possesses a constitutional right to refuse to produce, in compliance with a subpoena duces tecum, records of the union which are in his custody and which might tend to incriminate him. He relies upon the 'unreasonable search and seizure' clause of the Fourth Amendment and the explicit guarantee of the Fifth Amendment that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. We hold, however, that neither the Fourth nor the Fifth Amendment, both of which are directed primarily to the protection of individual and personal rights, requires the recognition of a privilege against self-incrimination under the circumstances of this case.

The constitutional privilege against self-incrimination is essentially a personal one, applying only to natural individuals. It grows out of the high sentiment and regard of our jurisprudence for conducting criminal trials and investigatory proceedings upon a plane of dignity, humanity and impartiality. It is designed to prevent the use of legal process to force from the lips of the accused individual the evidence necessary to convict him or to force him to produce and authenticate any personal documents or effects that might incriminate him. Physical torture and other less violent but equally reprehensible modes of compelling the production of incriminating evidence are thereby avoided. The prosecutors are forced to search for independent evidence instead of relying upon proof extracted from individuals by force of law. The immediate and potential evils of compulsory self-disclosure transcend any difficulties that the exercise of the privilege may impose on society in the detection and prosecution of crime. While the privilege is subject to abuse and mis- use, it is firmly embedded in our constitutional and legal frameworks as a bulwark against iniquitous methods of prosecution. It protects the individual from any disclosure, in the form of oral testimony, documents or chattels, sought by legal process against him as a witness.

Since the privilege against self-incrimination is a purely personal one, it cannot be utilized by or on behalf of any organization, such as a corporation. Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43, 26 S.Ct. 370, 50 L.Ed. 652; Wilson v. United States, 221 U.S. 361, 31 S.Ct. 538, 55 L.Ed. 771, Ann.Cas.1912D, 558; Essgee Co. v. United States, 262 U.S. 151, 43 S.Ct. 514, 67 L.Ed. 917. See also United States v. Invader Oil Corp., D.C., 5 F.2d 715. Moreover, 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. Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 6 S.Ct. 524, 29 L.Ed. 746. But individuals, when acting as representatives of a collective group, cannot be said to be exercising their personal rights and duties nor to be entitled to their purely personal privileges. Rather they assume the rights, duties and privileges of the artificial entity or association of which they are agents or officers and they are bound by its obligations. In their official capacity, therefore, they have no privilege against self-incrimination. And the official records and documents of the organization that are held by them in a representative rather than in a personal capacity cannot be the subject of the personal privilege against self-incrimination, even though production of the papers might tend to incriminate them personally. Wilson v. United States, supra; Dreier v. United States, 221 U.S. 394, 31 S.Ct. 550, 55 L.Ed. 784; Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 221 U.S. 612, 31 S.Ct. 621, 55 L.Ed. 878; Wheeler v. United States, 226 U.S. 478, 33 S.Ct. 158, 57 L.Ed. 309; Grant v. United States, 227 U.S. 74, 33 S.Ct. 190, 57 L.Ed. 423; Essgee Co. v. United States, supra. Such records and papers are not the private records of the individual members or officers of the organization. Usually, if not always, they are open to inspection by the members and this right may be enforced on ap- propriate occasions by available legal procedures. See Guthrie v. Harkness, 199 U.S. 148, 153, 26 S.Ct. 4, 5, 50 L.Ed. 130, 4 Ann.Cas. 433. They therefore embody no element of personal privacy and carry with them no claim of personal privilege.

The reason underlying the restriction of this constitutional privilege to natural individuals acting in their own private capacity is clear. The scope and nature of the economic activities of incorporated and unincorporated organizations and their representatives demand that the constitutional power of the federal and state governments to regulate those activities be correspondingly effective. The greater portion of evidence of wrongdoing by an organization or its representatives is usually to be found in the official records and documents of that organization. Were the cloak of the privilege to be thrown around these impersonal records and documents, effective enforcement of many federal and state laws would be impossible. See Hale v. Henkel, supra, 201 U.S. 70, 74, 26 S.Ct. 377, 379, 50 L.Ed. 652; 8 Wigmore on Evidence, 3rd Ed., § 2259a. The framers of the constitutional guarantee against compulsory self-disclosure, who were interested primarily in protecting individual civil liberties, cannot be said to have intended the privilege to be available to protect economic or other interests of such organizations so as to nullify appropriate governmental regulations.

The fact that the state charters corporations and has visitorial powers over them provides a convenient vehicle for justification of governmental investigation of corporate books...

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