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To characterize an interview as an ancillary proceeding would not only take liberties with the language and legislative history of Title IV of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1623, it would also contravene the court's long-established practice of resolving questions concerning the ambit of a criminal statute in favor of leniency. This practice reflects not merely a convenient maxim of statutory construction. Rather, it is rooted in fundamental principles of due process, which mandate that no individual be forced to speculate, at peril of indictment, whether his conduct is prohibited. Thus, to ensure that a legislature speaks with special clarity when marking the boundaries of criminal conduct, courts must decline to impose punishment for actions that are not plainly and unmistakably proscribed.
Petitioner's testimony before a grand jury in June 1976 implicated one Musgrave in various drug-related offenses, and an indictment of Musgrave followed. On September 30, 1976, petitioner recanted his testimony in an oral statement made under oath in the office of Musgrave's attorney. Musgrave then moved to dismiss his indictment, alleging that it was based on perjured testimony. At an evidentiary hearing on the motion to dismiss, petitioner adopted his September 30 statement and testified that only a small part of his grand jury testimony was true. As a result, the charges against Musgrave were reduced. Petitioner was subsequently indicted for violations of 18 U. S. C. § 1623 (1976 ed., Supp. I), which prohibited false declarations made under oath "in any proceeding before or ancillary to any court or grand jury." The indictment charged that petitioner's grand jury testimony was inconsistent with statements made "on September 30, 1976, while under oath as a witness in a proceeding ancillary to" the Musgrave prosecution. At trial, the Government introduced, over petitioner's objection, pertinent parts of his grand jury testimony, his testimony at the evidentiary hearing, and his sworn statement to Musgrave's attorney. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, although it agreed with the petitioner that he interview in the attorney's office was not an ancillary proceeding under Title IV, having determined that the October hearing at which the witness adopted his September statement was a proceeding ancillary to a grand jury investigation, and that the indictment's specification of the September interview in the attorney's office rather than the October evidentiary hearing as the ancillary proceeding constituted a non-prejudicial variance between the indictment and the proof at trial. Petitioner challenged the decision.
Under the circumstances, could petitioner be convicted under 18 U. S. C. § 1623?
On review, the Court noted that § 1623 prohibited false declarations made under oath in any proceeding before or ancillary to any court or grand jury of the United States. In the case at bar, the Court determined that the petitioner was not even in a deposition when his statements were given. The court held that the interview was not an ancillary proceeding under § 1623. Thus, the Court declined to impose punishment for an action that was not clearly proscribed, even though petitioner’s statements were false.