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Counselman v. Hitchcock

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld a person's refusal to testify before a grand jury, stating that the privilege against self-incrimination extends beyond criminal trials to investigations such as grand jury proceedings.


In Counselman v. Hitchcock, the Court considered a federal statute that granted witnesses immunity from criminal prosecution based on their testimony during judicial proceedings but not on their testimony before a federal grand jury. Charles Counselman asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions before a federal grand jury and asked for a writ of habeas corpus when he was confined for contempt of court for not answering. The Court unanimously upheld his refusal to testify. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Samuel Blatchford stated that the privilege against self- incrimination could be used by an accused not only in a criminal trial but also in any investigation including grand jury proceedings. Federal immunity law could not compel the appellant to testify because its protective scope was less than the Fifth Amendment guarantee. The statute prohibited the direct use of testimony in subsequent prosecution of the witness but not the testimony's use to search for other evidence. This broad privilege was narrowed substantially in Kastigar v. United States (1972) when the Court allowed evidence obtained independently to be used against a person who had testified under an immunity agreement.