Bellis v. United States, 417 U.S. 85 (1974)

2011-11-29 09:07:57

Isadore Bellis was a partner in a small law firm who received a grand jury subpoena for the financial records of the partnership and sought to resist producing them by asserting his Fifth Amendment selfincrimination privilege. While a custodian of records for a large business cannot assert the privilege after Hale v. Henkel, Bellis argued that the law partnership was not an organization separate from its individual partners, and, therefore, the production of the documents was the same as if he were subpoenaed personally.

The Supreme Court held that while the owner of a sole proprietorship can assert the Fifth Amendment in response to a subpoena for records of the business, a custodian of records for a collective entity who holds the documents in a representative capacity cannot assert the self-incrimination privilege. The Court applied its analysis in United States v. White that a collective entity is an organization that exists separately from its individual members, and must be relatively well-organized and structured and not merely a loose, informal association of individuals. The law firm had three partners and six other employees, and its records were those of the entire business and not merely of Bellis’s activity alone.

The Court held that ‘‘[w]hile small, the partnership here did have an established institutional identity independent of its individual partners.’’ The analysis in Bellis means that even small businesses, so long as they are not sole proprietorships, cannot refuse to produce records in response to a grand jury subpoena.


References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 1999
  • Mosteller, Robert P., Simplifying Subpoena Law: Taking the Fifth Amendment Seriously, Virginia Law Review 73 (1987): 1:1–110

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43 (1906) 
  • United States v. White, 322 U.S. 694 (1944) 

See also Grand Jury Investigation and Indictment; Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 370 (1906); Self-Incrimination (V): Historical Background