Marital Testimonial Privilege

A Court of Appeals decision filed November 30, 2010, reversed a district court’s finding that a wife could not testify against her husband without his consent.

The facts are as follows: the wife, afraid for her safety and that of her daughter’s due to an altercation the previous night, had removed her husband’s garage door opener from his vehicle, locking him out of their home. The husband left the house the next day, and being locked out of the home, attempted to break down the garage door. The wife called the police. Upon arriving the police found that the husband had been drinking. He also refused to comply with officer’s orders and tried to flee. The formal charges against the husband were 2nd Degree DWI, 3rd Degree DWI, obstruction of legal process or arrest, careless driving, and disorderly conduct.

The state notified the husband in pre-trial discovery that the wife was a voluntary witness in the case. The husband moved to exclude her testimony based on the marital testimonial privilege in Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(a) (2008). The district court ordered the wife’s testimony excluded. The state appealed the district court’s ruling on the basis that the disorderly conduct charge allows for the wife to testify under an exception to martial testimonial privilege.

Disorderly conduct is defined as “engage[ing] in offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous, or noisy conduct or in offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others.” Minn. Stat. § 672.72, subd. 1(3) (2008).

The statute governing the testimony of one spouse against the other, commonly referred to as “marital privilege,” sets forth that one spouse cannot testify against the other “during the marriage or afterwards,” without the other spouse’s consent. Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(a) (2008). There are a few exceptions to the consent requirement, one exception being that no consent is required in “a criminal action or proceeding for a crime committed by one [spouse] against the other[.]” Id.

The district court determined that a crime committed by one spouse against the other meant that a personal injury had to have occurred to destroy the spousal privilege. As the matter involved a disorderly conduct charge, there was no personal injury, and, therefore, the wife could not testify against the husband unless he consented.

The Court of Appeals did find that the district court’s interpretation that a crime committed by one spouse against the other needs to include personal injury to invoke the marital testimonial exception was a reasonable analysis; however the Court of Appeals found the state’s interpretation argument more persuasive. The state argued that the word “crime” used in the statute does not specify a type of crime or that the testifying spouse incur a personal injury for a “crime” to have occurred. Instead, the state successfully argued that a “crime” committed by one spouse against the other could be any sort of statutory crime, including disorderly conduct. The Court of Appeals rationalized that the state’s argument was a more modern approach to the purpose behind marital privilege. To find an exception to the marital testimonial privilege for a crime committed by one spouse against the other, the courts need to find that the underlying conduct was directed at and adversely affected or endangered the testifying spouse.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Categories: Criminal Defense