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Adamson v. California

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellant was convicted of first-degree murder in California state court after his refusal to take the stand and testify was commented on by opposing trial counsel.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination is not a part of the right to a fair trial protected by the Due Process clause of Fourteenth Amendment.

    Facts. At murder trial, appellant chose the strategy of not taking the stand and subjecting himself to cross-examination regarding former crimes of burglary, larceny and robbery that he had committed. Under a California statute, his attempt to protect himself from impeachment of his veracity nonetheless allowed prosecution to make reference to his refusal to testify, and he was convicted. Appellant argues that the California statute’s allowing opposing counsel to comment on his refusal to testify ran counter to the Fifth Amendment’s ban on a defendant’s compulsion to testify, and that the Fifth Amendment applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Issue. Is the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment and thus applicable to the states?

    Held. No. The court affirms the appellant’s conviction.
    The due process clause does not include all of the federal Bill of Rights. Here, it did not protect a defendant’s freedom from giving testimony by compulsion in state trials.

    The court rejected the argument that the Fifth Amendment’s protection versus self-incrimination was made effective by freedom from testimonial compulsion that is a right of national citizenship within the Fourteenth Amendment.

    They also rejected the idea that protection versus self-incrimination was a personal privilege or immunity secured by the Federal Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment prevents a state from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, but a state may abridge the privileges and immunities flowing from state citizenship as long as due process is not violated.

    The decision to not testify did not serve as an admission of any element of the crime. Proof of the commission of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt still remained with the prosecution, thus the federal constitutional due process standard was met.

    Dissents. J. Black. Deciding what parts of the Bill of Rights are to be incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment should not be a selective process, as that leaves too much discretion in the hands of the court. All of them should be incorporated.
    J. Murphy. All the specific guarantees laid out in the Bill of Rights should be incorporated into Fourteenth Amendment, but states can also violate due process by abridging other rights not specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights.
    Concurrence. J. Frankfurter. Do not force the states to include the specific provisions of the Bills of Rights into their lawmaking. The Fourteenth Amendment’s definition of due process is enough of a guiding hand to this court on whether a state has violated constitutional rights.

    Discussion. Although this case embraced selective incorporation in stating that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination did not apply to the states through the Fourteenth, subsequent cases held that comment upon a defendant’s failure to take the stand was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.


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