HARRIS v. UNITED STATES
Al Harris refused to answer questions before a grand jury on grounds of self-incrimination. Harris and the grand jury went before the District Court for the Southern District of New York where the judge told Harris he would receive immunity from prosecution that might arise from his statements. Harris again refused to answer, citing privilege. The judge then held Harris guilty of criminal contempt committed in the court’s presence under rule 42(a) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.
Is Harris guilty of criminal contempt under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(a)?
Legal provision: Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (or relevant rules of a circuit court)
No. In a 5-4 decision, Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority and held that Harris’ conduct did not rise to the level of contempt covered under 42(a). The rule is reserved for acts such as threatening the judge or disrupting a hearing. The Court also felt the “real contempt” occurred before the grand jury, not the district court. Because Harris’ conduct was not covered, he should be given notice of and a separate hearing for criminal contempt as provided by Rule 42(b). With this decision the court overruled Brown v. United States, 359 U.S. 41 (1959). Justice Potter Stewart wrote a dissent stating that the issue was resolved in Brown and there is no reason to overrule that decision.