Nilva v. United States

352 U.S. 385
Nilva v. United States
Argued: November 8, 1956
Decided: February 25, 1957


See 353 U.S. 931, 77 S.Ct. 716.
Mr. Eugene Gressman, Washington, D.C., for the petitioner.
Mr. Richard J. Blanchard, Washington, D.C., for the respondent.
Mr. Justice BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice BRENNAN, join, dissenting.

This conviction for criminal contempt should be reversed and the case should be remanded to the District Court with directions that it be tried before some district judge other than the one who preferred the charges against the petitioner and then convicted him. There have probably been few cases in the annals of this Court where the proceedings below were afflicted with so many flagrant errors. The Government has confessed most of these errors, but contends that enough can be salvaged from the record to sustain the conviction.

Petitioner, who is a lawyer, was a vice president of the Mayflower Distributing Company. Apparently he served largely as a nominal officer and performed only minor functions for this company. He was indicted with the president of the company and another man on a charge that they had conspired unlawfully to transport gambling devices in interstate commerce. A jury acquitted petitioner but failed to reach a verdict on the charge against the other two defendants. Subsequently a new trial was ordered for these two defendants. Prior to this new trial, the Government procured the issuance of two very broad subpoenas that directed the Mayflower Distributing Company to produce a large number of its corporate records, which the Government anticipated might show illegal transactions in interstate commerce. These subpoenas were served on the company’s secretary but since he was occupied elsewhere he asked the petitioner to produce the material demanded by the subpoenas. On rather short notice petitioner produced a substantial number of records in compliance with these orders.

However, the Government, believing that all of the company’s records called for by the subpoenas had not been produced, examined petitioner under oath before the trial judge in an effort to determine the extent of his compliance. Petitioner testified that he had produced as many of the records demanded as he could locate by a diligent search; nevertheless the trial judge ordered that all of the company’s records be impounded. Government agents took charge of these impounded records and examined them. The Government claims that this material included books and documents called for by the subpoenas but not produced by the petitioner.

The trial judge issued an order under Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure for petitioner to show cause why he should not be held in criminal contempt of the court. This charge of contempt was based on three specifications: (1) that petitioner had testified falsely and evasively when asked under oath whether he had produced all the materials called for by the subpoenas; (2) that he had failed to comply with the first subpoena by not producing five items; and (3) that he had disobeyed the second subpoena by failing to produce twenty-two items. Four days after this order was issued, a hearing on the contempt charge was held before the same trial judge who sat in the retrial of the two other defendants and who preferred the charge against the petitioner. The judge found petitioner guilty on all three specifications of contempt and sentenced him to one year and one day imprisonment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. [1]

The Government confesses that the conviction on the first two specifications of contempt cannot be sustained. As it concedes, there was not only insufficient evidence to support the charges made in these specifications but the trial court admitted and relied on evidence which was clearly incompetent. In addition, petitioner was denied his constitutional right to confront and cross-examine witnesses whose testimony was used against him. And in regard to the first specification alleging false and evasive testimony under oath, petitioner’s conduct, at most, only involved perjury, a crime that cannot be punished by use of the contempt power. [2] Nevertheless, the Government would have us uphold the conviction and sentence below on the basis of the finding of guilt on the third specification alone, the alleged failure to comply with the second subpoena.

A fundamental premise of our criminal law is that the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offense charged. And this Court has repeatedly emphasized that a prosecution for criminal contempt should be treated the same as any other criminal prosecution in this respect. [3] Before petitioner could be found guilty of criminal contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena, the prosecution had the burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that he intentionally refused to obey the court’s order by not producing the materials demanded even though they were available to him. In this case the record does not contain enough competent evidence for the trier of fact to find that petitioner intentionally refused to comply with the second subpoena or even that the books and documents demanded by that subpoena were available to him.

Only four of the twenty-two documents referred to in the third specification were introduced in evidence and, as the Government recognizes, the conviction must rest on petitioner’s intentional refusal to produce these four documents. The only competent evidence in the record which even tends to support an inference that petitioner knew the location of any of these four documents or that they were accessible to him was his comment that he had ‘previously’ examined two of them. [4] But by itself this solitary ambiguous fragment is clearly insufficient to justify finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the records were available to petitioner at the time when he was supposed to comply with the second subpoena. Since the prosecution offered no admissible evidence at the trial, this obscure remark constitutes the sole case on this point against petitioner. It is the only shred of admissible evidence that the majority has been able to glean from the record. On the other hand, petitioner testified that as far as he knew most of the company’s records were stored in the basement of its office and that he had made a diligent search through these records in an effort to produce the material demanded by the subpoena. And he was not the custodian of the company’s records, but only a nominal officer.

Similarly there was almost nothing before the trial court which even suggested that petitioner intentionally refused to produce the records demanded. He stated under oath that he was not trained in accounting and was not familiar with the company’s accounting records. He repeatedly testified that he had attempted in good faith to comply with the subpoena. The Government contends that a prima facie case of intentional refusal can be made out circumstantially from such evidence as is contained in the record. But since the competent evidence does not even support an inference that petitioner knew the location of the four crucial documents or that they were accessible to him, it is hard to see how an intentional refusal to obey can be implied at all, let alone beyond a reasonable doubt.

The trial judge compounded his error in convicting petitioner on such a striking insufficiency of competent evidence by relying on inadmissible hearsay statements which were not subject to cross-examintion. The Government introduced in evidence, over objection, a transcript of an FBI agent’s testimony at a prior trial in which petitioner was not a party. The agent had testified that he found certain records and documents in the company’s offices. Appently some of these were papers that the second subpoena had ordered the May-flower Company to produce. The FBI agent’s testimony together with certain statements by petitioner did furnish some evidence that these papers were available to petitioner, but, as the Government confesses, this testimony was plainly inadmissible. [5] Nevertheless the record indicates that the trial judge relied on it in finding petitioner guilty. As a matter of fact he went so far as to say ‘* * * that in this proceeding there ought to be include any pertinent part of the record or the files in the preceding case because this contempt proceeding arose out of the (petitioner’s) actions (in refusing to comply with a subpoena issued in the prior case).’

The judge’s position was manifestly wrong. A trial for criminal contempt is a proceeding wholly separate from any prior trial out of which the alleged contempt arose. [6] A conviction for contempt in a Rule 42(b) proceeding must stand on the evidence properly introduced in that proceeding. Where a trial judge bases his decision in part on evidence which although material is inadmissible the conviction cannot stand even though an appellate court might conclude after expunging the bas evidence that enough good remained to support the conviction. The defendant is entitled to a decision by the trial judge based on that judge’s evaluation of the proper evidence. It is no answer to say that the trial judge could have found the defendant guilty solely on the good evidence. He did not and the defendant is entitled to a retrial. The danger of prejudice from inadmissible hearsay was particularly grave in this case since the admissible evidence before the trial court was so grossly inadequate. [7]

The erroneous admission of portions of the record from the earlier trial accentuated another impropriety in the proceedings below. I believe that it is wrong in a Rule 42(b) proceeding for the same judge who issued the orders allegedly disobeyed and who preferred the charges of contempt on his own initiative and based on his own knowledge to sit in judgment on the accused. In essence, this allows a man who already believes that another person has disobeyed his command to act as both prosecutor and judge in a proceeding to ‘decide’ formally whether that person disobeyed him and should be punished. It is contrary to elemental principles of justice to place such power in the hands of any man. [8] At the very least another judge should be called upon to try the contempt charges. Here, besides issuing the orders allegedly disobeyed and then citing petitioner for contempt, the trial judge was intimately involved in earlier proceedings from which the contempt charge developed and in which evidence relevant to that charge was presented. Under such circumstances he would have been superhuman not to have held preconceived views as to petitioner’s guilt.

The record discloses several incidents which specifically indicate that petitioner was not accorded a fair trial. At the outset, the judge informed the petitioner that the burden was on him to proceed. This is completely inconsistent with the presumption of innocence which exists in favor of a person charged with criminal contempt. Rather, the prosecutor carries the burden of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that the alleged contemnor committed the offense charged. [9] The almost total absence of any attempt by the Government to introduce evidence at petitioner’s trial in support of the accusations of contempt indicates that it relied on the trial judge’s personal knowledge of the case. And as the majority points out several times the trial judge repeatedly indicated prior to the trial that he believed that petitioner was guilty of false and evasive testimony-the offense charged in the first specification of contempt. There is nothing which suggests that he did not have similar preconceived views on the other two specifications. [10] Surely every defendant is entitled to an impartial trial by one who has not prejudged his case but instead decides only on the evidence introduced at the trial. Application of this simple principle is just as necessary in contempt cases as in others.

Under Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure when the alleged contempt involves ‘disrespect to or criticism of a judge’ that judge shall be disqualified. Rule 42(b) contains no provision with respect to disqualification in other circumstances. The majority relies on this silence to reject petitioner’s contention that the trial judge here should have stepped aside. But at most Rule 42(b) only permits a negative inference that a judge who prefers contempt charges for violations of his orders and who is intimately involved in related proceedings bearing on these charges can sit in judgment on the alleged contempt. In any event, Rule 42(b) is a rule promulgated by this Court and where it is not explicit we should not interpret it in a manner to deny a fair trial before an impartial arbiter. Even if the majority were correct in saying that an ‘abuse of discretion’ must be shown before this Court will compel a judge to disqualify himself, the record in this case clearly shows that it was an ‘abuse of discretion’ for the trial judge not to step aside.

If the preceding errors and improprieties are not flagrant enough, the Court of Appeals contributed additional error by relying on a so-called ‘supplemental record’ to affirm the conviction. This ‘supplemental record’ included material which was not introduced at the trial and which was not even made a part of the record on appeal by the trial judge. The Government now concedes that it was improper for the appellate court to rely on this material. But as its first opinion shows, the Court of Appeals referred to the ‘supplemental record’ to support its conclusion that there was sufficient evidence for the trial judge to find that the papers called for were available to petitioner, that he failed to produce them and that this failure was in bad faith. And on rehearing the Court of Appeals added still further error. After conceding that there were grave doubts about the admissibility of the FBI agent’s uncross-examined hearsay statements, it nevertheless stated that the conviction was not reversible because the contempt could have been prosecuted under the summary procedures of Rule 42(a). But as the Government points out, petitioner could not conceivably have been convicted under that rule.

And there are even more matters tainting the proceedings below. For example, petitioner was rushed to trial with an unduly short period to prepare his defense to the contempt charge. He was informed of the specifications of contempt on a Friday and told to appear the next Tuesday for trial. Since the subpoenas were extremely broad and vague and the specifications involved a large number of documents petitioner faced a formidable task in preparing a defense. He had four days, over a weekend, to secure a lawyer and familiarize him with the case, to examine a great volume of records, to talk with those having relevant knowledge about these records and to secure witnesses. And when at the trial his lawyer requested a reasonable continuance, the judge gave only a few hours respite.

This Court should not sanction a conviction where the whole proceedings below were riddled with so many basic errors of serious magnitude. Sending the case back for a new sentence, even if it turns out to be a smaller one, seems to me to fall far short of according this peitioner the kind of justice every defendant has a right to expect from our courts. While somehow there is an idea that procedural safeguards required in other criminal trials are not available in trials for criminal contempt, due process certainly requires that one charged with such contempt be given a fair trial before an impartial judge. Here petitioner is to be deprived of his liberty and perhaps his professional career without having received that essential prerequisite to justice.


^1  227 F.2d 74.

^2  In re Michael, 326 U.S 224, 66 S.Ct. 78, 90 L.Ed. 30.

^3  E.g., Michaelson v. United States ex rel. Chicago, St. P., M. & O.R. Co., 266 U.S. 42, 66, 45 S.Ct. 18, 20, 69 L.Ed. 162 (‘In criminal contempts, as in criminal cases, the presumption of innocence obtains. Proof of guilt must be beyond reasonable doubt * * *.’); Gompers v. Buck’s Stove & Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 444, 31 S.Ct. 492, 499, 55 L.Ed. 797 (‘Without deciding what may be the rule in civil contempt, it is certain that in proceedings for criminal contempt the defendant is presumed to be innocent, he must be proved to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt * * *.’).

See also United States ex rel. Porter v. Kroger Grocery & Baking Co., 7 Cir., 163 F.2d 168, 172. (‘(W)e have examined the authorities with a view of ascertaining the essential elements necessary to be alleged and proven in order to justify a conviction for criminal contempt. It is plain that a defendant is entitled to all the protection afforded a defendant in an ordinary criminal case and that the burden is upon the government to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’)

^4  The transcript of the record gives the following colloquy:

‘Q. (By petitioner’s counsel) Have you examined Respondent’s Exhibit 3? (Exhibit 3 was one of the four documents introduced in evidence.)

‘A. (By petitioner) Yes, sir, I have examined this record, as well as the others, and from my examination-no, let me say, I examined those other two records previously and was unable to find any evidence of slot machines-‘

Petitioner’s answer is ambiguous. It does not indicate where or when the prior examination took place or under what conditions.

^5  See In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 273, 68 S.Ct. 499, 507, 92 L.Ed. 682.

^6  Gompers v. Buck’s Stove & Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 444 446, 451, 31 S.Ct. 492, 499-500, 55 L.Ed. 797; Hayes v. Fischer, 102 U.S. 121, 26 L.Ed. 95; City of New Orleans v. The Steamship Co., 20 Wall. 387, 22 L.Ed. 354; Ex parte Kearney, 7 Wheat. 38, 5 L.Ed. 391.

^7  In its footnote 6 the majority states that the four documents introduced in evidence speak for themselves. It is not clear what the majority means by this statement. The mere fact that they were before the trial court does not tend to show that their location was known to petitioner or that they were available to him. At most it only shows that they were in existence at the trial and permits an inference that they existed somewhere previously.

^8  In In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942, this Court held that it violated due process for a judge to try contempt charges which he had preferred while acting as a so-called one-man grand jury. The Court, 349 U.S. at pages 136 137, 75 S.Ct. at page 625, declared:

‘A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process. Fairness of course requires an absence of actual bias in the trial of cases. But our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness. To this end no man can be a judge in his own case and no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome. * * * Fair trials are too important a part of our free society to let prosecuting judges be trial judges of the charges they prefer.’

In the present case we are not compelled to reach the question of due process since this Court possesses general supervisory power over the criminal procedures in lower federal courts.

^9  See footnote 3, supra.

^10  A further indication of the trial judge’s attitude toward petitioner is found in the ‘supplemental record’ prepared by the Government for the Court of Appeals. The judge is reported as stating at the conclusion of the contempt trial that had petitioner ‘been a defendant in the (trial of his two alleged coconspirators) as it was tried (the second time), I don’t think he would have been so fortunate.’ The judge then imposed a harsh sentence on petitioner.

Back to Top

Exported from Wikisource CC-BY-SA 3.0

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).