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Brown v. Walker - 161 U.S. 591, 16 S. Ct. 644 (1896)


If the testimony sought cannot possibly be used as a basis for, or in aid of, a criminal prosecution against the witness, the rule against interrogation ceases to apply, its object being to protect the witness himself and no one else -- much less that it shall be made use of as a pretext for securing immunity to others.


Petitioner appellant Brown was an auditor of a railway company that was under investigation for alleged violations of the Interstate Commerce Act, 27 Stat. 443 (1893) (the Act). Brown was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in relation to those charges. In response to certain questions, Brown declined to answer under the Fifth Amendment. At Brown’s show cause hearing, he was found in contempt and ordered into the custody of respondent appellee marshal Walker. Brown petitioned the circuit court for a writ of habeas corpus which was discharged. He was remanded into custody. Brown sought review of the alleged incompatibility of the Fifth Amendment and the Act, which declared that no person would be excused from testifying before the Interstate Commerce Commission on the ground that the testimony may tend to incriminate that person.


Was Brown’s allegation that there was an incompatibility between the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and the Act meritorious?




Affirming, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fifth Amendment was meant to apply only when there was a danger that the person called to testify would be prosecuted for that testimony. Because the Act indicated that persons called to testify thereunder would be granted immunity for all matters testified to, no conflict existed between the two. The Court explained that while the Fifth Amendment provision in question was justly regarded as one of the most valuable prerogatives of the citizen, its object was fully accomplished by the statutory immunity. Accordingly, the witness, Brown, was compellable to answer.

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