HOFFMAN V. UNITED STATES, 341 U. S. 479 (1951)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hoffman v. United States, 341 U.S. 479 (1951)

Hoffman v. United States

No. 513

Argued April 25, 1951

Decided May 28, 1951

341 U.S. 479


1. Claiming that answers might tend to incriminate him of a federal offense, petitioner refused to answer certain questions asked him by a special federal grand jury making a comprehensive investigation of violations of numerous federal criminal statutes and conspiracies to violate them. He had been publicly charged with being known as an underworld character and a racketeer with a 20-year police record, including a prison sentence on a narcotics charge. The questions he refused to answer pertained to the nature of his present occupation and his contacts and connections with, and knowledge of the whereabouts of, a fugitive witness sought by the same grand jury and for whom a bench warrant had been requested. The judge who had impaneled the grand jury and was familiar with these circumstances found no real and substantial danger of incrimination to petitioner and ordered him to answer. Petitioner stated that he would not obey the order, and he was convicted of criminal contempt.

Held: The conviction is reversed. Pp. 341 U. S. 480-490.

(a) The privilege against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment extends not only to answers that would in themselves support a conviction under a federal criminal statute, but also to those which would furnish a link in the chain of evidence needed to prosecute the claimant for a federal crime. Blau v. United States, 340 U. S. 159. P. 341 U. S. 486.

(b) To sustain the privilege, it need only be evident from the implications of the question, in the setting in which it is asked, that a responsive answer to the question or an explanation of why it cannot be answered might be dangerous because injurious disclosure could result. Pp. 341 U. S. 486-487.

(c) In this case, the court should have considered that the chief occupation of some persons involves evasion of federal criminal laws and that truthful answers by petitioner to the questions as to the nature of his business might have disclosed that he was engaged in such proscribed activity. Pp. 341 U. S. 487-488.

Page 341 U. S. 480

(d) Answers to the questions as to his contacts and connections with the fugitive witness and knowledge of his whereabouts at the time might have exposed petitioner to peril of prosecution for federal offenses ranging from obstruction to conspiracy. P. 341 U. S. 488.

2. Two weeks after his conviction of contempt and denial of bail pending appeal, petitioner filed in the District Court a paper captioned "Petition for Reconsideration of Allowance of Bail Pending Appeal," accompanied by an affidavit and exhibits explaining his refusal to answer the questions and presenting facts to justify his fear that answers would tend to incriminate him. These papers were filed in the Court of Appeals as a supplemental record on appeal, but that Court struck them from the record and affirmed the conviction.

Held: the supplemental record should have been considered by the Court of Appeals, since it was actually directed to the power of the committing court to discharge the contemnor for good cause -- a power which courts should be solicitous to invoke when important constitutional objections are renewed. Pp. 341 U. S. 489-490.

185 F.2d 617 reversed.

In a federal district court, petitioner was convicted of contempt for refusal to answer questions before a federal grand jury. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 185 F.2d 617. This Court granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 946. Reversed, p. 341 U. S. 490.

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