Harris v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 382 US 162 (1965)
ARGUED: Oct 11, 1965 / Oct 12, 1965
DECIDED: Dec 06, 1965

Facts of the case

Al Harris refused to answer questions before a grand jury on grounds of self-incrimination. Harris and the grand jury went before the District Court for the Southern District of New York where the judge told Harris he would receive immunity from prosecution that might arise from his statements. Harris again refused to answer, citing privilege. The judge then held Harris guilty of criminal contempt committed in the court's presence under rule 42(a) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.


Is Harris guilty of criminal contempt under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(a)?

Media for Harris v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 12, 1965 in Harris v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 11, 1965 in Harris v. United States

Earl Warren:

Number 6, Al Harris, Petitioner, versus United States.

Mr. Goldfarb.

Ronald L. Goldfarb:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case presented the Court with the opportunity to deal with two important and quite disputed, specially recently quite disputed areas in the law of contempt.

They are first the procedures governing Grand Jury contempts and particularly Rule 42 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedures and secondly, the right to trial by a jury for criminal contempts when the sentences are severe.

Before dealing with these two subjects, I would like to briefly summarize the facts which gave rise to this contempt conviction.

In July of 1963, the petitioner was subpoenaed to appear before a Grand Jury of the South District of New York.

His subpoena specified that the Grand Jury was investigating under the general conspiracy, criminal conspiracy statute.

He appeared, answered certain preliminary questions and then refused to answer a group of questions invoking his privilege under the Fifth Amendment.

The government counsel offered petitioner immunity under Title 47 of the U.S. Code, the Federal Communications Act, the petitioner nonetheless refused to answer the questions and continued to invoke his privilege under the Fifth Amendment, whereupon he was asked to leave the Grand Jury room, the District Court Judge was brought in and his aid and assistance was sought by the government counsel for the Grand Jury.

The judge was not certain whether or not he could in fact give the immunity under the circumstances of the case and adjourned till the next day, advising the petitioner that he should come at that time with counsel.

On the following day, the petitioner appeared in the courtroom before the judge and government counsel without the Grand Jury and after some colloquy in which the counsel for the petitioner expressed some reluctance to appear and stated that he wasn't quite ready, the judge dismissed the proceeding because he felt at that time that he couldn't truly give the immunity that the government counsel had spoken of.

A week later, in August of 1963, the petitioner was subpoenaed again and appeared again and appeared before the same Grand Jury and the same government counsel.

Under the subpoena which this time mentioned an investigation into Title 47 of the Communications Act.

Again he was asked a series of questions, some of which were essentially the same as he had already been asked a week before and some of them were a continuation of those questions and again, refused invoking his privilege against self incrimination.

At this point, he was taken with the Grand Jury by the government counsel before the Court and the Court's aid and assistance was again requested.

The judge again discussed with counsel whether counsel was prepared to undertake this case and the counsel was quite reluctant to appear.

The judge again not certain whether or not he could invoke or whether or not he could in fact give immunity under Title 47 adjourned the proceedings, so that he could read the transcript of a case which was he felt dispositive of his power in this regard.

The following morning, the judge, Grand Jury and lawyers again reassembled in the Grand Jury room, which was specifically stated in the record as being used an extension of the Grand Jury proceeding.

The judge at this point ordered the petitioner to answer the questions that had been put to him before the Grand Jury.

Then the judge and the petitioner's counsel left the courtroom and he was re-asked the questions by the government counsel.

Again, he refused to answer the questions, at this point completing his contempt of court if any there was.

After he was asked the questions and again refused to answer under the Fifth Amendment grounds, the judge and the petitioner's counsel came back into the courtroom.

They were appraised by the government counsel of what had happened, what had ensued while they were out and again the government counsel asked the Court to order to witness to testify.

At this point, at the request of the government counsel, the Court put the witness on the stand, swore the witness with the Grand Jury present, with the government counsel present and still somewhat reluctant petitioner's counsel present, re-asked him the same questions, advised him that he would not consider his Fifth Amendment defense because he was giving him immunity, asked him if he understood that, petitioner nonetheless respectfully declined to answer on the grounds that he felt he could be -- he would be incriminating himself.

At this point, the government asked the Court to proceed under Rule 42(a) and find the petitioner in contempt in the presence of the Court.

At this point, the petitioner's counsel who had been lead to believe in the prior proceedings that he would not necessarily be involved in a contempt proceeding, rose and said, and I would like to now refer to page 32 and 33 of the transcript, because on this page-and-a-half is an example of startlingly summary proceeding.

What petitioner will urge is, is the very reason why Rule 42(a) should not apply in cases like this.

At this point, we pick up in the middle of page 32, we find the judge and the petitioner's counsel having come back into the courtroom after the witness had been ordered to testify and had refused and at this point, had committed his contempt of court if there was one.

The Court says after directing the witness to testify again at the request of the government counsel, anything further, the government counsel said no and requested the Court to proceed under Rule 42(a).