United States v. Balsys, 524 U.S. 666 (1998)

2012-09-19 13:37:26

This decision toes the line of cases declining to extend beyond U.S. borders certain civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Aloyzas Balsys, a U.S. permanent resident, emigrated from Lithuania in 1961. Thirty years later, the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations came to suspect that during World War II Balsys had helped Nazis to persecute persons on account of race, religion, or political opinion. Balsys refused to reply to questions about this at an immigration hearing. He invoked the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination on the ground his answers might be used against him in a criminal trial—not in the United States, where the worst he faced was deportation, but in Lithuania, the country to which he would be deported. Resolving disagreement in courts below, justices held seven to two that witnesses might be compelled to testify in the United States even though a foreign prosecutor might use that testimony against them. Justice David Souter’s majority opinion interpreted precedents to mean that the privilege binds only federal or state governments and not governments outside the outside the Union. A concern underlying the privilege—that forced self-incrimination improperly harms human dignity—was said not to compel a different result. The Court held that an exception might occur if the United States were colluding with the foreign government; however, the extensive U.S.–Lithuania cooperation in Balsys’ case did not rise to that level. At a time of increasing cross-border law enforcement cooperation, Balsys stands as an obstacle to assuring full protection of individual rights.


References and Further Reading

  • Amann, Diane Marie., A Whipsaw Cuts Both Ways: The Privilege against Self-Incrimination in an International Context, UCLA Law Review 45 (1998): 5: 1201–1295.
  • ———, International Decisions: United States v. Balsys, American Journal of International Law 92 (1998): 4: 759–764.
  • Seidmann, Daniel J., and Alex Stein. The Right to Silence Helps the Innocent: A Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Fifth Amendment Privilege, Harvard Law Review 114 (2000): 2: 430–510.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • United States v. Balsys, 524 U.S. 666 (1998)

See also Constitution Overseas