WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court nullified yesterday a tax-evasion case against Webster L. Hubbell, a longtime confidant of President Clinton's, because prosecutors had built the case out of evidence Hubbell was forced to supply after being granted immunity from prosecution.
In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled that former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr could not have made a case against Hubbell without first granting him immunity, issuing a subpoena for his personal papers and forcing him to validate what he had turned over.
Suggesting that Starr had gone on a "fishing expedition," the court said the prosecutor had violated Hubbell's Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
"The assembly of those documents was like telling an inquisitor the combination to a wall safe," the court said. If Hubbell had not selected the documents to turn over, thus revealing their existence and authenticity, the justices noted, Starr would have had no evidence of tax evasion.
Hubbell supplied 13,120 pages of files in reply to the subpoena. In those files, Starr found evidence that Hubbell, a former senior Justice Department official, had not paid taxes on all his income.
Yesterday, Hubbell told the Associated Press that the ruling was "a nice victory, but it's even a better victory for the Constitution."
Starr's successor, Robert W. Ray, said he was pleased that the court "has clarified this difficult area of the law." Prosecutors, Ray said, will now be able to predict "the full consequences" of granting immunity.
Starr had demanded Hubbell's personal files while investigating whether Hubbell was accepting money from friends that was intended to silence him as a potential witness against the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton in Starr's investigation of the Whitewater land deal. But instead of finding proof that Hubbell was being paid off, Starr found unreported taxable income.
Hubbell earlier had pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and tax evasion for his billing practices as a lawyer in Little Rock, Ark., before joining the Justice Department in the Clinton administration.
While the former associate attorney general was in prison for that conviction, Starr's staff became suspicious that Hubbell had been paid "hush money." Hubbell was then issued a subpoena for a list of personal records.
Called before a grand jury, Hubbell cited his Fifth Amendment right to silence in refusing to say whether he had the subpoenaed records. He was granted immunity, then handed over the files.
By handing them over in a "truthful reply" to the subpoena, the Supreme Court noted, Hubbell supplied "the first step in a chain of evidence that led" to his second prosecution.
"The documents did not magically appear in the prosecutor's office like 'manna from heaven,'" Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. "They arrived there only after" Hubbell claimed his privilege, received immunity and then supplied the documents.
While Starr would have been free to use the tax-evasion evidence in the documents if he had obtained the evidence independently, Stevens said the evidence was barred because it resulted from a violation of Hubbell's rights.
Hubbell had pleaded guilty to one tax-evasion count - on the condition that his plea would stand up only if Starr won when the case reached the Supreme Court. With the ruling going against Starr yesterday, the tax-evasion plea was erased.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented alone from the ruling in Hubbell's favor.
In another decision, the court ruled that prosecutors may obtain an extra 30 years on the sentence of someone convicted of committing a violent crime with a gun only if they prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the firearm was a machine gun.
The decision requiring that the type of gun be proved as a separate criminal offense is expected to force a new trial of five people who were convicted of using machine guns during the standoff between federal officers and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993.