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Blau v. United States

U.S.
Jan 15, 1951
340 U.S. 332 (1951)

Summary

holding that defendant had not overcome the presumption that marital communications are privileged

Summary of this case from Sprenger v. Rector Board of Visitors of Va. Tech

Opinion

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT.

No. 21.

Argued November 7, 1950. Decided January 15, 1951.

Petitioner, a witness before a federal grand jury in response to a summons, declined to answer questions concerning activities and records of the Communist Party in Colorado, claiming his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. Asserting his privilege against disclosing confidential communications between husband and wife, he also refused to reveal the whereabouts of his wife, who was wanted by the grand jury as a witness in connection with the same investigation. It was undisputed that he obtained his knowledge of his wife's whereabouts by communication from her. The District Court overruled both claims of privilege and sentenced petitioner to imprisonment for contempt of court. Held:

1. Failure to sustain petitioner's claim of privilege against self-incrimination was error. Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159. P. 333.

2. Petitioner was entitled to rely on his privilege against disclosing confidential communications between husband and wife because the Government failed to overcome the presumption that the communications were confidential. Pp. 333-334.

179 F.2d 559, reversed.

The District Court sentenced petitioner to imprisonment for contempt of court, for refusing to answer questions before a federal grand jury. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 179 F.2d 559. This Court granted certiorari. 339 U.S. 956. Reversed, p. 334.

Samuel D. Menin argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Solicitor General Perlman argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General McInerney, John F. Davis and J. F. Bishop.


Petitioner was summoned to appear before a federal district grand jury in Denver, Colorado. Both before that body and before the district judge where he was later taken, petitioner declined to answer questions concerning the activities and records of the Communist Party of Colorado, claiming his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. He also refused to reveal the whereabouts of his wife, who was wanted by the grand jury as a witness in connection with the same investigation. As to this refusal to testify, petitioner asserted his privilege against disclosing confidential communications between husband and wife. The district judge overruled both claims of privilege and sentenced petitioner to six months in prison for contempt of court. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. 179 F.2d 559.

For the reasons set out in our recent opinion in Patricia Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159, we hold it was error to fail to sustain the claim of privilege against self-incrimination.

This leaves for consideration the validity of the sentence insofar as it rests on the failure of petitioner to disclose the whereabouts of his wife. In Wolfle v. United States, 291 U.S. 7, this Court recognized that a confidential communication between husband and wife was privileged. It is not disputed in the present case that petitioner obtained his knowledge as to where his wife was by communication from her. Nevertheless, the Government insists that he should be denied the benefit of the privilege because he failed to prove that the information was privately conveyed. This contention ignores the rule that marital communications are presumptively confidential. Wolfle v. United States, supra, at 14; Wigmore, Evidence, § 2336. The Government made no effort to overcome the presumption. In this case, moreover, the communication to petitioner was of the kind likely to be confidential. Petitioner's wife, according to the district judge, knew that she and a number of others were "wanted" as witnesses by the grand jury but she "hid out, apparently so that the process . . . could not be served upon her." Several of the witnesses who appeared were put in jail for contempt of court. Under such circumstances, it seems highly probable that Mrs. Blau secretly told her husband where she could be found. Petitioner's refusal to betray his wife's trust therefore was both understandable and lawful. We have no doubt that he was entitled to claim his privilege. Reversed.

Petitioner's wife, when apprehended, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for contempt, Patricia Blau v. United States, supra, although other witnesses who refused to testify received shorter sentences. In sentencing Mrs. Blau, the judge stated: "I haven't much sympathy for this lady because, as I said, she defied the Court by avoiding the process of the Court when she knew very well that she was wanted here, and yet she hid out, apparently so that the process of this court could not be served upon her."

In view of our decision on this phase of the case, it is unnecessary to reach the question whether the single conviction for contempt (which was based on the refusal to give incriminating testimony and on the refusal to reveal a confidential marital communication) would be valid if petitioner were entitled to claim one, but not both, of the privileges.

MR. JUSTICE CLARK took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


If a communication between husband and wife is made under circumstances obviously not intended to be confidential, it is not privileged. Wolfle v. United States, 291 U.S. 7, 14.

Where the privilege suppresses relevant testimony, as it did here, it should "be allowed only when it is plain that marital confidence can not otherwise reasonably be preserved." Id., at 17.

Unless the wife is in concealment, which does not appear to be the case here, the disclosure of her whereabouts to the husband is obviously not intended to be confidential and therefore is not privileged. Not every communication between husband and wife is blessed with the privilege. The general rule of evidence is competency. Incompetency is the exception, and to bring one within the exception, one must come within the reason for the exception. The reason here is protection of marital confidence, not merely of communication between spouses. It seems to me clear that all that is shown here is communication. The circumstances of confidence are absent; what all may know is certainly not confidential.

For refusal to divulge his wife's whereabouts, petitioner was in contempt. Since the sentence he received was such as he might have received for that single act of contempt, his conviction is valid. Cf. Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640, 641, n. 1; Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, 85. If petitioner conceived his sentence to be illegal, he would not be without remedy, for he might seek a reduction thereof on remand of this case under Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. I intimate nothing as to that issue.

I would affirm the conviction.


Summaries of

Blau v. United States

U.S.
Jan 15, 1951
340 U.S. 332 (1951)

holding that defendant had not overcome the presumption that marital communications are privileged

Summary of this case from Sprenger v. Rector Board of Visitors of Va. Tech

In Blau, the Court had "no doubt" that the recipient of a marital communication could claim "his privilege" to refuse to reveal the information to authorities.

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Montgomery

In Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 332, 71 S.Ct. 301, 95 L.Ed. 306 (1951), the Supreme Court stated: "[T]he Government insists that [the party claiming the privilege] should be denied the benefit of the privilege because he failed to prove that the information was privately conveyed.

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Taylor

In Blau, a husband invoked the marital communications privilege in refusing to tell a federal grand jury the whereabouts of his wife.

Summary of this case from In re Grand Jury Investigation

In Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 332, 71 S.Ct. 301, 95 L.Ed. 306 (1951), the husband refused to disclose the whereabouts of his wife, sought as a grand jury witness, who secretly entrusted her address to him.

Summary of this case from United States v. Kahn

In Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 332, 334, 335, 71 S.Ct. 301, 95 L.Ed. 306, the majority did not decide the point; but the minority opinion indicates that the entire conviction would still be valid, citing Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640, 641, note 1, 66 S.Ct. 1180, 90 L.Ed. 1489; Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, 84, 63 S. Ct. 1375, 87 L.Ed. 1774, though the appellants might apply under F.R.Cr.P., rule 35, 18 U.S.C. to the district court to exercise its discretion to reduce the sentences.

Summary of this case from United States v. Field

reiterating rule of presumptive confidentiality in response to argument that party asserting privilege had not proved that information was privately conveyed

Summary of this case from Montoya v. City of Albuquerque

expressing "no doubt" that husband was entitled to claim a confidential communication privilege rather than disclose the whereabouts of his wife, learned from her, at a time when she was hiding out to avoid being served with process

Summary of this case from State v. Pritchard

noting that government made no effort to overcome marital privilege and communication was likely to be confidential

Summary of this case from Williams v. State
Case details for

Blau v. United States

Case Details

Full title:BLAU v . UNITED STATES

Court:U.S.

Date published: Jan 15, 1951

Citations

340 U.S. 332 (1951)
71 S. Ct. 301
95 L. Ed. 306

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