United States v. Zolin

Decision Date21 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-40,88-40
Citation491 U.S. 554,105 L.Ed.2d 469,109 S.Ct. 2619
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Frank S. ZOLIN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), as part of its investigation of the tax returns of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology (the Church), filed in the Federal District Court a petition to enforce a summons it had served upon the Clerk of the Los Angeles County Superior Court demanding that he produce documents, including two tapes, in his possession in conjunction with a pending suit. The Church and Mary Sue Hubbard, intervenors in the state-court action and respondents here, intervened to oppose production of the materials. They claimed, inter alia, that the IRS was not seeking the materials in good faith and that the attorney-client privilege barred the tapes' disclosure. The IRS argued, among other things, that the tapes fell within the exception to the attorney-client privilege for communications in furtherance of future illegal conduct—the so-called "crime-fraud" exception—and urged the District Court to listen to the tapes in making its privilege determination. In addition, the IRS submitted a declaration by a special agent which had included partial tape transcripts the IRS lawfully had obtained. The court rejected respondents' bad-faith claim and ordered production of five of the requested documents, but it conditioned its enforcement order by placing restrictions upon IRS dissemination of the documents. The court also ruled that the tapes need not be produced since they contained privileged attorney-client communications to which, the quoted excerpts revealed, the crime-fraud exception did not apply. The court rejected the request that it listen to the tapes, on the ground that that request had been abandoned in favor of using the agent's declaration as the basis for determining the privilege question. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conditional-enforcement order. As to the privilege issue, it agreed with respondents that the District Court would have been without power to grant the IRS' demand for in camera review of the tapes, because the Government's evidence of crime or fraud must come from sources independent of the attorney-client communications on the tapes. Reviewing the independent evidence (a review that excluded the partial transcripts), the court affirmed the District Court's determination as to the inapplicability of the crime-fraud exception.


1. Insofar as it upheld the District Court's conditional-enforcement order, the Court of Appeals' judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court. P. 561.

2. In appropriate circumstances, in camera review of allegedly privileged attorney-client communications may be used to determine whether the communications fall within the crime-fraud exception. Pp. 562-575.

(a) Federal Rule of Evidence 104(a), which provides that a court is bound by the rules of evidence with respect to privileges when determining the existence of a privilege, does not prohibit the use of in camera review. Pp. 565-570.

(b) However, before a district court may engage in in camera review at the request of the party opposing the privilege, that party must present evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that such review may reveal evidence that establishes the exception's applicability. Once this threshold showing is made, the decision whether to engage in in camera review rests in the sound discretion of the court. Pp. 570-572.

(c) The party opposing the privilege may use any relevant nonprivileged evidence, lawfully obtained, to meet the threshold showing, even if its evidence is not "independent" of the contested communications as the Court of Appeals uses that term. Pp. 573-574.

(d) On remand, the Court of Appeals should consider whether the District Court's refusal to listen to the tapes in toto was justified by the manner in which the IRS presented and preserved its in camera review request. If its demand was properly preserved, that court, or the District Court on remand, should determine whether the IRS has presented a sufficient evidentiary basis for in camera review and whether it is appropriate for the District Court, in its discretion, to grant the request. Pp. 574-575.

809 F.2d 1411 (CA9 1987), 842 F.2d 1135, and 850 F.2d 610 (CA9 1988), affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except BRENNAN, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Alan I. Horowitz, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Michael Lee Hertzberg, New York City, for respondents.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case arises out of the efforts of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate the tax returns of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology (the Church), for the calendar years 1979 through 1983. We granted certiorari, 488 U.S. 907, 109 S.Ct. 257, 102 L.Ed.2d 246 (1988), to consider two issues that have divided the Courts of Appeals. The first is whether, when a district court enforces an IRS summons, see 26 U.S.C. § 7604, the court may condition its enforcement order by placing restrictions on the disclosure of the summoned information.1 The Court of Appeals in this case upheld the restrictions. We affirm its judgment on that issue by an equally divided Court.

The second issue concerns the testimonial privilege for attorney-client communications and, more particularly, the generally recognized exception to that privilege for communications in furtherance of future illegal conduct—the so-called "crime-fraud" exception. The specific question presented is whether the applicability of the crime-fraud exception must be established by "independent evidence" (i.e., without reference to the content of the contested communications themselves), or, alternatively, whether the applicability of that exception can be resolved by an in camera nspection of the allegedly privileged material.2 We reject the "independent evidence" approach and hold that the district court, under circumstances we explore below, and at the behest of the party opposing the claim of privilege, may conduct an in camera review of the materials in question. Because the Court of Appeals considered only "independent evidence," we vacate its judgment on this issue and remand the case for further proceedings.3


In the course of its investigation, the IRS sought access to 51 documents that had been filed with the Clerk of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in connection with a case entitled Church of Scientology of California v. Armstrong, No. C420 153. The Armstrong litigation involved, among other things, a charge by the Church that one of its former members, Gerald Armstrong, had obtained by unlawful means documentary materials relating to Church activities, including two tapes. Some of the documents sought by the IRS had been filed under seal.

The IRS, by its Special Agent Steven Petersell, served a summons upon the Clerk on October 24, 1984, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7603, demanding that he produce the 51 documents.4 The tapes were among those listed. App. 33-38. On November 21, IRS agents were permitted to inspect and copy some of the summoned materials, including the tapes.

On November 27, the Church and Mary Sue Hubbard, who had intervened in Armstrong, secured a temporary restrain- ing order from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The order required the IRS to file with the District Court all materials acquired on November 21 and all reproductions and notes related thereto, pending disposition of the intervenors' motion for a preliminary injunction to bar IRS use of these materials. Exh. 2 to Petition to Enforce Internal Revenue Summons. By order dated December 10, the District Court returned to the IRS all materials except the tapes and the IRS' notes reflecting their contents. See App. 30.

On January 18, 1985, the IRS filed in the District Court a petition to enforce its summons. In addition to the tapes, the IRS sought 12 sealed documents the Clerk had refused to produce in response to the IRS summons. The Church and Mary Sue Hubbard intervened to oppose production of the tapes and the sealed documents. Respondents claimed that IRS was not seeking the documents in good faith, and objected on grounds of lack of relevance and attorney-client privilege.

Respondents asserted the privilege as a bar to disclosure of the tapes. The IRS argued, among other things, however, that the tapes fell within the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege, and urged the District Court to listen to the tapes in the course of making its privilege determination. In addition, the IRS submitted to the court two declarations by Agent Petersell. In the first, Petersell stated his grounds for believing that the tapes were relevant to the investigation. See Declaration in No. CV 85-0440-HLH, ¶ 3 (March 8, 1985). In the second, Petersell offered a description of the tapes' contents, based on information he received during several interviews. Appended to this declaration—over respondents' objection—were partial transcripts of the tapes, which the IRS lawfully had obtained from a confidential source. See March 15, 1985, declaration (filed under seal).5 In subsequent briefing, the IRS reiterated its request that the District Court listen to the tapes in camera before making its privilege ruling.

After oral argument and an evidentiary hearing, the District Court rejected respondents' claim of bad faith. App. to Pet. for Cert. 27a. The court ordered production of 5 of the 12 documents, id., at 28a, and specified: "The documents delivered hereunder shall not be delivered to any other government agency by the IRS unless criminal tax prosecution is sought or an Order of Court is obtained." Id., at 29a.


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