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The most indefensible sort of entrapment by a state is convicting a citizen for exercising a privilege which the state clearly had told him was available to him. A state may not issue commands to its citizens, under criminal sanctions, in language so vague and undefined as to afford no fair warning of what conduct might transgress them. Inexplicably contradictory commands in statutes ordaining criminal penalties have, in the same fashion, judicially been denied the force of criminal sanctions. Where there were more than commands simply vague or even contradictory; there was active misleading, the court cannot hold that the Due Process Clause permits convictions to be obtained under such circumstances.
Four defendants were convicted in state courts for refusing to answer questions about Communistic or subversive activities put to them at sessions of the "Un-American Activities Commission" established in the legislative branch of the Ohio Government. Each was led by the Commission to believe that the privilege against self-incrimination afforded by the Ohio Constitution was generally available to him, and each relied on that privilege; but the Ohio Supreme Court sustained their convictions on the ground that the privilege was not available to them, because a state immunity statute deprived them of the protection of that privilege. Defendants alleged that their convictions violated the due process clause of U.S. Const. amend. XIV.
Did the due process clause of U.S. Const. amend. XIV preclude the convictions of the defendants?
Yes, with respect to three out of four defendants.
The court held that because the chairman of the committee, as the voice of the State, told defendants that they had a right to refuse to answer questions which might incriminate them, and did not tell them about the immunity statute, the due process clause under U.S. Const. amend. XIV precluded the convictions of the three defendants who were not directed to answer the questions after they refused to answer, but did permit the conviction of the fourth who was directed to answer.