The Supreme Court ruled in a District of Columbia case Monday that a prosecutor who warns a grand jury witness of his right to invoke the Fifth Amendment's protection against compelled self-incrimination is not required also to warn the witness that he may be indicted. A story on the case yesterday interpreted the ruling tool broadly.
The Supreme Court ruled in a District of Columbia case yesterday that the Fifth Amendment protection against compelled self-incrimination does not extend to grand jury testimony of a potential defendant who appears under subpoena.
The 7-to-2 decision reversed the D.C. Court of Appeals in a case involving Gregory V. Washington, who was subpoeaned to testify before a D.C. Superior Court grand jury in connection with his possession of a stolen motorcyle.
The prosecutor, doubting Washington's protestations of innocence, did not advise him before bringing him before the grand jury that he himself might be indicted for the theft.
After being sworn, however, the prosecutor gave Washington a series of warnings, including one about his right to remain silent and another about his right to counsel. Then the prosecutor asked him if he wanted "to answer questions . . . in reference to a stolen motorcycle that was found in your truck?"
"Yes, sir," Washington replied.
Affirming a Superior Court ruling the appellate court said the testimony had to be suppressed and Washington's subsequent indictment dismissed because the government had not demonstrated that Washington had knowingly waived his privilege against compelled self-incrimination "in the cloister of the grand jury."
In the opinion for the Supreme Court delivered yesterday, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said that by the time Washington testified, he "knew better than anyone else of his potential defendant status." In any case, Burger said, "we do not understand what constitutional disadvantage a failure to give a potential defendant warnings could possibly inflict on a grand jury witness . . . "
In a dissent, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote that the failure to warn Washington that he was a potential defendant was "fatal to an indictment of him."
Without the warning and the subsequent voluntary waive of the privilege, there was "such gross encroachment upon the witness' privilege as to render worthless the values protedcted by it" unless the government is barred from using the self-incriminating testimony at a trial, Brennan said.
In a separate unanimous decision in a California case, the court held that the privilege does not permit a grand jury witness to commit perjury or entitle the witness to have false testimony suppressed.