The Privilege Against Self-Incrimination and Foreign Prosecutions

Reader John Lunde points to the story about the criminal division chief of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office taking the Fifth Amendment in the Congressional investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, and asks: What if the witness is given immunity from prosecution — which normally blocks the invocation of the privilege against self-incrimination — but “still refuses to testify for fear of Mexican prosecution? Would that be a valid defense?”

The answer is that fear of foreign prosecution does not suffice to allow the assertion of a privilege against self-incrimnination, see United State v. Balsys (1998) (7-2) (Ginsburg & Breyer, JJ., dissenting), at least absent some deliberate attempt by the U.S. and Mexico to use this as a plan for gathering information for a Mexican prosecution. “Concern with foreign prosecution is beyond the scope of the Self-Incrimination Clause,” unless (for instance) “the United States and its allies had enacted substantially similar criminal codes aimed at prosecuting offenses of international character, and … the United States was granting immunity from domestic prosecution for the purpose of obtaining evidence to be delivered to other nations as prosecutors of a crime common to both countries” (in which case “that prosecution was not fairly characterized as distinctly ‘foreign'”).

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