FISHER V. UNITED STATES, 425 U. S. 391 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Fisher v. United States, 425 U.S. 391 (1976)

Fisher v. United States

No. 74-18

Argued November 3, 1975

Decided April 21, 1976*

425 U.S. 391


In each of these cases taxpayers, who were under investigation for possible civil or criminal liability under the federal income tax laws, after having obtained from their respective accountants certain documents relating to the accountants' preparation of their tax returns, transferred the documents to their respective attorneys to assist the taxpayers in connection with the investigations. Subsequently, the Internal Revenue Service served summonses on the attorneys directing them to produce the documents, but the attorneys refused to comply. The Government then brought enforcement actions, and, in each case, the District Court ordered the summons enforced. In No. 74-18 the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the taxpayers had never acquired a possessory interest in the documents and that the documents were not immune from production in the attorney's hands. But in No. 74-611, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, by virtue of the Fifth Amendment, the documents would have been privileged from production pursuant to a summons directed to the taxpayer if he had retained possession, and that, in light of the attorney-client relationship, the taxpayer retained such privilege after transferring the documents to his attorney.


1. Compelled production of the documents in question from the attorneys does not implicate whatever Fifth Amendment privilege the taxpayer-clients might have enjoyed from being themselves compelled to produce the documents. Pp. 425 U. S. 396-401

(a) Whether or not the Fifth Amendment would have barred a subpoena directing the taxpayers to produce the documents while they were in their hands, the taxpayers' privilege under that Amendment is not violated by enforcing the summonses, because enforcement against a taxpayer's lawyer would not "compel" the taxpayer to do anything, and certainly would not

Page 425 U. S. 392

compel him to be a "witness" against himself, and the fact that the attorneys are agents of the taxpayers does not change this result. Couch v. United States, 409 U. S. 322. Pp. 425 U. S. 396-398.

(b) These cases do not present a situation where constructive possession of the documents in question is so clear or relinquishment of possession so temporary and insignificant as to leave the personal compulsion upon the taxpayer substantially intact, since the documents sought were obtainable without personal compulsion upon the taxpayers. Couch, supra. P. 425 U. S. 398.

(c) The taxpayers, by transferring the documents to their attorneys, did not lose any Fifth Amendment privilege they ever had not to be compelled to testify against themselves and not to be compelled themselves to produce private papers in their possession, and this personal privilege was in no way decreased by the transfer. Pp. 425 U. S. 398-399.

(d) Even though the taxpayers, after transferring the documents to their attorneys, may have had a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the documents, the Fifth Amendment does not protect private information obtained without compelling self-incriminating testimony. Pp. 425 U. S. 399-401.

2. Although the attorney-client privilege applies to documents in the hands of an attorney which would have been privileged in the hands of the client by reason of the Fifth Amendment, the taxpayer-clients in these cases would not be protected by that Amendment from producing the documents in question, because production of such documents involves no incriminating testimony, and therefore the documents in the hands of the taxpayers' attorneys were not immune from production. Pp. 425 U. S. 402-414.

(a) The Fifth Amendment does not independently proscribe the compelled production of every sort of incriminating evidence, but applies only when the accused is compelled to make a testimonial communication that is incriminating. P. 425 U. S. 408.

(b) Here, however incriminating the contents of the accountants' workpapers might be, the act of producing them -- the only thing that the taxpayers are compelled to do -- would not, itself, involve testimonial self-incrimination, and implicitly admitting the existence and possession of the papers does not rise to the level of testimony within the protection of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 425 U. S. 409-414.

No. 74-18, 500 F.2d 683, affirmed; No. 74-611, 499 F.2d 444, reversed.

Page 425 U. S. 393

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 425 U. S. 414, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 425 U. S. 430, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

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