Yesterday former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn informed the Senate Intelligence Committee he will not comply with its subpoena. The subpoena sought any documents in Flynn’s possession relating to any communications or dealings with Russian officials. Through his attorneys, Flynn claimed that turning over the documents would violate his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
Now that Flynn has taken the Fifth, what happens next? Basically there are three alternatives: 1) the Senate challenges the claim of privilege; 2) the Senate grants Flynn immunity; or 3) the Senate decides to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege and move on with its investigation.
But the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly expressed surprise that Flynn could take the Fifth in connection with a subpoena for documents. So the first question is:
Can He Do That?
No one has a right simply to refuse to comply with a subpoena. Flynn can’t just say, “No, thanks” and refuse to turn over the documents. He has to have a valid legal excuse. In this case, he claims that excuse is his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Flynn had already asserted the Fifth in connection with any possible testimony before Congress. Weeks ago he indicated he would cooperate and testify only if he was granted immunity. So far Congress has not taken him up on that offer.
But when it comes to producing documents, rather than testifying, the rules are more complicated. The Fifth Amendment generally does not protect the contents of documents that were voluntarily created. Suppose I write in my diary, “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.” Then I lose the diary and someone turns it in to the authorities, or investigators seize the diary while executing a search warrant.
The contents of the diary certainly incriminate me. But I can’t claim a Fifth Amendment right not to have it used against me. The government did not compel me to write in my diary. The Fifth Amendment limits only government compulsion of testimony and so does not apply.
Act of Production Privilege
When it comes to producing documents, the Fifth Amendment protection is not based on the contents of those documents. It’s based on something called “act of production privilege.” Act of production privilege recognizes there may be testimonial aspects involved in producing documents that are subpoenaed.
If I turn over subpoenaed documents I am admitting the documents exist, that I have them, and that I believe they are responsive to the subpoena. Forcing me to respond to the subpoena may be akin to putting me on the stand and requiring me to make those admissions. In that situation I may be able to refuse to comply, because to comply would be to incriminate myself.
Act of production privilege does not automatically apply to any document subpoena. If the government can establish that the existence of the records is a foregone conclusion – in other words, anyone in my position would be expected to have the types of records called for – it can argue there is nothing testimonial about turning them over. In addition, sometimes the government can show with some specificity that it already knows the documents exist and that I have them. In that case, the act of producing them adds nothing to the government’s knowledge and would not be privileged.
But sometimes the government knows little or nothing about the nature of potential documents or whether they even exist and is just fishing to see what’s out there. In such a case, responding to the subpoena by identifying and turning over documents may be a testimonial act.
Congress is investigating Flynn over possible contacts with Russian officials and for allegedly lying about those contacts. Documents reflecting any such contacts are therefore potentially incriminating. His attorneys argue the Senate has failed to demonstrate that the existence of the subpoenaed documents is a foregone conclusion or that the Senate already knows the documents exist. Accordingly, they say, to turn over any such documents would be a privileged testimonial act.
So now that Flynn has taken the Fifth and refused to turn over the documents, where does the investigation go from here?
Option One: Fighting the Privilege Claim
Congress is not required to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege at face value. If the Senate believes the privilege claim is unfounded, if can seek to enforce the subpoena. The Senate Committee leaders have reportedly said they will “vigorously pursue” the production of the documents. There are different ways the Senate could do this.
One alternative is for the Senate to file a civil lawsuit against Flynn seeking to enforce the subpoena. In the lawsuit Flynn would assert his Fifth Amendment claim as a defense, and a judge would rule on whether that claim was valid. If Flynn lost, he could appeal. If he lost again, he could ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. In the end, if the courts found there was no privilege, a judge would order Flynn to comply with the subpoena. If he still refused, he could be punished for contempt of court.
A second alternative is for the Senate to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and ask him to prosecute Flynn for criminal contempt of Congress. After receiving the referral, the U.S. Attorney would decide whether to pursue the contempt case. If the U.S. Attorney chose to indict Flynn for contempt of Congress, Flynn’s defense would be that the Fifth Amendment justified his refusal to comply. Once again, the courts would ultimately rule on that claim.
The U.S. Attorney could also decide that Flynn’s Fifth Amendment claim is valid and prosecution for contempt would not be appropriate. This happened recently in the case of Lois Lerner, a former IRS official. When she took the Fifth and refused to testify before a Congressional committee about claims the IRS had improperly targeted certain political groups, Congress referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney for a contempt prosecution. The U.S. Attorney, however, decided that Lerner’s privilege claim was justified and declined to bring a case. (You can find my post with more detail about contempt of Congress and the Lerner case here.)
A referral to the U.S. Attorney turns control of the contempt decision over to the Executive Branch. But a third option is for Congress to charge Flynn itself, using its own inherent contempt power. Although this inherent contempt power is well established, Congress hasn’t used it since the 1930s.
If the Senate chose to go this route there would be a hearing before Congress, similar to a trial. Flynn would appear, be represented by counsel, and would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege as his justification for not honoring the subpoena.
If Congress rejected Flynn’s privilege claim and found him in contempt, it could have Flynn jailed until he complied with the subpoena. If that happened, of course, Flynn’s lawyers would immediately go to court seeking to have his Fifth Amendment rights vindicated and to have Flynn released. So once again we would ultimately end up with a court ruling on whether the privilege claim is valid.
These three options for enforcing the subpoena have one thing in common: none of them are quick. With court hearings and appeals it could easily take many months to resolve the privilege claims. If the Senate’s primary goal is to get the information quickly, it could instead pursue option two: granting Flynn immunity.
Option Two: Immunizing Flynn
Rather than fighting the privilege claim, the Senate could choose to grant Flynn immunity for his production of the documents. The immunity order would provide that the testimonial aspects of Flynn turning over the documents could not be used against him. In other words, the government could not introduce into evidence the fact that Flynn had possessed the documents or that he turned them over in response to a subpoena.
This more limited type of immunity is called, reasonably enough, act of production immunity. As with immunity generally, Congress has the power to grant act of production immunity even if the Department of Justice objects. Two-thirds of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee would need to approve.
If granted act of production immunity Flynn would no longer have a basis to withhold the documents. If he continued to refuse to comply with the subpoena he would face contempt charges and could be jailed until he complied.
Immunizing Flynn would mean Congress would get the documents quickly, but there is a risk. The grant of immunity could end up torpedoing a future criminal prosecution of Flynn if a court found that the prosecution relied on information gathered from the documents produced. This happened in a case involving Webb Hubbell, President Bill Clinton’s former Associate Attorney General. Hubbell’s prosecution resulted in the leading Supreme Court decision on act of production immunity.
United States v. Hubbell
Hubbell was subpoenaed by the Whitewater Independent Counsel to produce a large number of documents to the grand jury. He asserted his Fifth Amendment act of production privilege and refused to produce the requested documents or even admit they existed. The prosecutors granted him immunity for the act of production, and Hubbell turned over more than 13,000 pages of responsive documents.
Based on information contained in the documents, the Independent Counsel later indicted Hubbell for tax crimes and fraud. But the Supreme Court threw out the indictment, saying it violated Hubbell’s Fifth Amendment rights.
The government did not seek to use evidence that Hubbell had possessed or produced the documents – that direct evidence would have violated the immunity order. But the contents of the documents had provided information that led to Hubbell’s indictment.
The Supreme Court held that by compelling Hubbell to assemble and produce documents responsive to the subpoena the government had made use of the “contents of his mind.” The government had only learned of the information in the documents as a result of that compulsion. Therefore using the contents of the documents to prosecute Hubbell was a prohibited “derivative use” of Hubbell’s immunized act of producing them.
The law on act of production immunity is not completely clear. And this case would be different from Hubbell’s in at least one important respect. In Hubbell the documents were subpoenaed by the same grand jury that later indicted him. In Flynn’s case Congress has issued the subpoena. That would make it easier for prosecutors to argue that their own investigation was not influenced by the documents. However, given how easily information spreads through the Internet (and how easily it leaks from Capitol Hill), it might be a challenge for prosecutors to prove their case was not tainted.
Congress could decide it is willing to take that risk in order to get the information quickly. They have done it before, most famously in the case of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra investigation, where Congress’s grant of immunity ultimately resulted in North’s criminal convictions being reversed. But by granting immunity Congress could end up begin accused of sabotaging any potential future criminal case against Flynn. For now, at least, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly said that immunity is “off the table.”
Option Three: Just Move Along
The third option for Congress at this point is simply to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege and move on. There is a great deal of investigating still to be done. Congress may be able to get much of the same information from other sources.
In addition to the investigations on Capitol Hill, the Special Counsel investigation will be moving forward. Criminal prosecutors may be able to build a case against Flynn without the subpoenaed documents. If Flynn were to end up facing charges, prosecutors could potentially negotiate a plea deal. As part of that deal Flynn could agree to turn over the documents and otherwise cooperate in the investigation of others.
Although there is public pressure to get to the bottom of what happened, the investigation is still in its infancy. Granting immunity could end up being a mistake if Flynn turns out to be one of the principal bad actors. Congress and the Special Counsel have plenty of time to pursue other avenues.
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