Brown v. Walker 161 U.S. 591 (1896)

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BROWN v. WALKER 161 U.S. 591 (1896)

After counselman v. hitchcock (1892) Congress authorized transactional immunity to compel the testimony of anyone invoking the right against self-incrimination in a federal proceeding. Appellant, despite a grant of immunity, refused to testify before a grand jury investigating criminal violations of federal law. He argued that Congress could not supersede a constitutional provision by a mere statute and that the statute did not immunize him from all liabilities that might ensue from incriminating admissions. The Supreme Court, by a 5–4 majority, held that the act provided an immunity commensurate with the scope of the Fifth Amendment right and therefore constitutionally supplanted it.

Justice henry b. brown, for the Court, declared that if the compulsory disclosures could not possibly expose the witness to criminal jeopardy, the demand of the Fifth Amendment was satisfied. The statute did not have to protect him from every possible detriment that might result from his evidence, as long as it exempted the witness from prosecution for any crime to which he testified under compulsion. If his testimony "operates as a complete pardon for the offense to which it relates,—a statute absolutely securing to him such immunity from prosecution would satisfy the demands of the clause of question." But he could be compelled to be a witness against himself if a statute of limitations barred prosecution, if his evidence merely brought him into public disgrace, or if he had already received a pardon or absolute immunity and thus stood with respect to such offense "as if it had never been committed."

The dissenters argued that the act was unconstitutional because the amendment protected the witness from compulsory testimony that would expose him to infamy even in the absence of a prosecution. They added that the act also exposed the witness to a possible prosecution for perjury, which could not possibly be imputed if he did not have to testify.

(See immunity grants. )

Leonard W. Levy

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Brown v. Walker 161 U.S. 591 (1896)

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