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Law School Case Brief

Hoffman v. United States - 341 U.S. 479, 71 S. Ct. 814 (1951)


The privilege afforded by the guarantee against testimonial compulsion provided by U.S. Const. Amend V not only extends to answers that would in themselves support a conviction under a federal criminal statute but likewise embraces those which would furnish a link in the chain of evidence needed to prosecute the claimant for a federal crime. However, the witness is not exonerated from answering merely because he declares that in so doing he would incriminate himself -- his say-so does not of itself establish the hazard of incrimination. It is for the court to say whether his silence is justified, and to require him to answer if it clearly appears to the court that he is mistaken. 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.


Claiming that answers might tend to incriminate him of a federal offense, petitioner Samuel Hoffman refused to answer certain questions asked him by a special federal grand jury making a comprehensive investigation to defraud the Government of the United States, involving violations of the customs, narcotics, and internal revenue liquor laws of the United States, as well as violations of the White Slave Traffic Act, perjury, bribery, and other criminal laws of the United States, and conspiracy to commit all such offenses. Hoffman 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 impanelled the grand jury 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.


By refusing to obey a federal court order requiring him to answer questions because of fear of self-incrimination, should the defendant be convicted of criminal contempt?




The Court reversed defendant's conviction, holding that, under all of the circumstances, defendant's concern that answering the questions might subject him to federal criminal liability was reasonable, and defendant was therefore entitled to the protection afforded by U.S. Const. amend. V against testimonial self-incrimination and should not have been held in contempt for failing to answer.

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