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U.S. v. Doe

    Brief Fact Summary. Doe (Respondent), the owner of several sole proprietorships, was served with five subpoenas by a grand jury; the subpoenas sought various business records from the sole proprietorships, including telephone records, bank statements, and listings of all business records. Respondent filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, which the District Court for the District of New Jersey granted, except with respect to records that were required to be kept by law or to be disclosed to a public agency. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the order of the District Court, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari here.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination applies to the act of production of the business records of a sole proprietorship, but does not apply to the content of business records.

    Facts. Respondent owned several sole proprietorships. During a governmental investigation into possible corruption with the awarding of county and municipal contracts, Respondent was served with a total of five subpoenas. The subpoenas sought telephone records, bank statements, cancelled checks, and lists of business records from Respondent’s businesses.
    Respondent filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, which was granted by the District Court for the District of New Jersey. The District Court, however, did not grant the motion to quash with respect to, “those documents and records required by law to be kept or disclosed to a public agency,” such as W-2 statements.
    The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of the motion to quash, holding that the turning over of such records by an owner of a sole proprietorship would essentially admit the records’ existence and their authenticity, and therefore violate the Fifth Amendment.
    At the Court of Appeals level, the government argued that it had offered to not use Respondent’s act of production against Respondent in any way. However, the Court held that since no formal request for immunity had been made under the applicable federal statute, Respondent’s motion to quash was properly granted by the District Court.
    The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Court of Appeals’ holding affirming the District Court’s grant of Respondent’s motion to quash the subpoena was proper.

    Issues.
    Does the Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination apply to the act of producing the business records of a sole proprietor’s business?

    Does the Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination apply to the content of the business records of a sole proprietor’s business?

    Held. Affirmed in part and reversed in part.
    Yes; such an act, when done by a sole proprietor, concedes that the documents and records exist and concedes that the sole proprietor is in possession or control of the documents, and therefore violates the Fifth Amendment, unless it is done pursuant to and in accordance with a formal statutory grant of immunity.

    No; there is no compulsion involved when records are made voluntarily, and therefore the content of such records is not privileged.

    Dissent.
    Justices Marshall (writing) and Brennan concurred in part and dissented in part, agreeing with the Court that the act of producing documents such as the ones at issue here could not be compelled absent a grant of immunity, and also stating that under the Fifth Amendment, “there are certain documents no person ought to be compelled to produce at the Government’s request.” (citations omitted). This dissenting opinion only disagreed with the majority on a minor issue, writing that, “[i]nasmuch as the Court of Appeals’ judgment did not rest upon the disposition of [whether the Fifth Amendment protected the contents of the documents], this Court errs by reaching out to decide it.”

    Justice Stevens concurred in part and dissented in part, and argued that based on the Court’s holding, the Court of Appeals’ judgment should be affirmed in its entirety, rather than affirmed in part and reversed in part, as it was by the majority. Specifically, Justice Stevens wrote, “[t]his Court’s opinion is entirely consistent with both the reasoning of the Court of Appeals and its disposition of the case. This Court agrees that the subpoena directed to respondent should have been quashed.


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