January 13, 1953

Report Outline
Self-Incrimination Plea in Investigations
Legal Protection Against Self-Incrimination
Scope and Purpose of Immunity Statutes

Self-Incrimination Plea in Investigations

Threat To Effectiveness of Congressional Inquiries

Means of overcoming a threat to effective exercise of the investigatory powers of Congress are expected to engage the attention of the nation's legislators early in the current session. A recent series of court decisions has demonstrated that a person's constitutional protection against being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” is sufficient, if properly invoked, to afford relief from penalties for refusing to answer questions put by a congressional investigating committee.

Resort to the so-called privilege against self-incrimination has been common in grand jury proceedings, but its use by witnesses before congressional committees is something new. The House Committee on Un-American Activities for years has had trouble trying to persuade witnesses to testify about Communist connections. Until 1950, however, such witnesses based their refusals to answer, not on the ground of possible self-incrimination, but on the plea that committee questions invaded their rights under the First [freedom of speech and assembly] Amendment, were not pertinent to the inquiry, or otherwise exceeded the committee's powers. That defense did not hold up. Many of those witnesses, cited for contempt of Congress, were convicted, paid fines, and served prison sentences.

“Use of Self-Incrimination Plea by Balky Witnesses

A change of tactics took place in the spring of 1950. When the Un-American Activities committee held hearings in Hawaii in mid-April, 39 witnesses refused to reply to the standard question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” and to similar queries, on the ground that their replies might tend to incriminate them. The same plea was made later by several witnesses who balked at answering questions posed by the Tydings (D., Md.) subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by other witnesses before the Committee on Un-American Activities, and by more than two score witnesses before the special Senate Crime Investigating Committee headed by Sen. Kefauver (D. Tenn.). In fact, since the spring of 1950, the privilege against self-incrimination has been invoked by all but a handful of the persons who have refused to answer questions of congressional investigating committees.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
U.S. Constitution