Adamson v. California – Case Brief

Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46 (1947).

Facts: Adamson (D) was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Adamson appealed, claiming that California’s (P) law which allowed the judge, counsel, and jury in his trial to comment on his failure to testify violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against forced self-incrimination. The Supreme Court of California upheld Adamson’s conviction and Adamson appealed.

Issue: Is the Fifth Amendment prohibition against compelled self-incrimination in Federal cases equally applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Holding and Rule (Reed): No. The Fifth Amendment prohibition against compelled self-incrimination is not incorporated into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court held that freedom from testimonial compulsion is neither a right of national citizenship, nor a personal privilege or immunity secured by the Federal Constitution as one of the rights of man listed in the Bill of Rights. Freedom from compelled testimony is not an inherent element in the right to a fair trial. The court held that most states do not have a rule permitting comment on an accused’s failure to testify, while some states permit limited comment, but the comment allowed must not be prejudicial to the interests of the defendant.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Concurring (Frankfurter): It is natural and reasonable to allow jurors to do that which sensible and right-minded men do every day. The history of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments rejects the arguments that the total incorporation theory is supported and that the right against self incrimination is one of the immutable principles of justice necessary to a civilized society.

Dissent (Black): History conclusively demonstrates that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment thought it sufficiently explicit to guarantee that no state could deprive its citizens of the privileges and protections of the Bill of Rights. The total incorporation theory should be used, and the natural law formula used by Reed and Frankfurter should be abandoned as an incongruous excrescence on our Constitution.

Notes: This case was overruled by Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609 (1965).


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