Testing Marriage Secrecy

By The Law Offices of Ronald H. Kauffman of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Divorce on Monday, February 1, 2016.

Can emails to your husband or wife be used as evidence against you in divorce, or is there a privilege against that? A New York federal court is about to decide that issue.

Actually, there is a privilege, and it is a very old one at that. The privilege is rooted in English common law since at least 1628, when an English lord established the idea that spouses should not be forced to testify against each other.

In the New York case, a husband is being charged with supporting Islamic State, and the prosecution wants to use his letter to his wife which they found.

The Wall Street Journal has an article on Tairod Pugh, a 48-year old U.S. Air Force veteran who wrote a letter to his wife, saying he wanted to become a martyr, and to support Islamic State.

He was turned away at the Turkish border before he could cross into Syria. Now that the prosecution has the letter, Tairod wants to hide it from a jury.

A privilege, in evidence-speak, is an exception to the rule that ‘no one may refuse to give testimony or other evidence in court.’ This general rule helps to ensure fair trials.

A privilege is not a constitutional right. The right not to incriminate yourself (“taking the Fifth”) is a constitutional right. A privilege allows you to object to your own or another’s testimony about communications within confidential relationships.

I’ve written about evidence before. The Husband-Wife privilege, although ancient, has the same value today as it did then. Courts recognize the privilege to protect marriages from the harm of spouses being forced to testify against each other.

In Florida, a spouse has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent others from disclosing, communications which were intended to be made in confidence between the spouses while they were husband and wife.

The privilege does not work in divorce cases. When one spouse uses the courts against the other spouse, our policy of encouraging settlement could be frustrated by the privilege.

In addition to exceptions, privileges have to be properly asserted or they may be lost. A spouse may waive the privilege by failing to object to the testimony when offered.

You can also waive the privilege by mentioning the confidential communication to others, and by offering testimony about it through other witnesses.

Every state in the U.S. recognizes one or both of the types of spousal privilege recognized by federal courts. There are differences from state to state with the privilege; for example, some states have many more exceptions to the privilege.

The Wall Street Journal article can be found here (paywall).