Can One Spouse be Forced to Testify Against the Other?

Can My Spouse be Forced to Testify Against Me in a Criminal Trial in Texas?

Husband Wife Privilege Texas Rule 504Everyone knows (or should know) of the attorney-client privilege which prohibits the calling of an attorney to testify as a witness against his client and protects the attorney-client relationship. But what about the husband-wife relationship? Are spouses afforded any protection from having their spouse testify against them in a criminal trial?

Yes. In Texas there are two “Husband-Wife” privileges that apply to the marital relationship: spousal immunity and the marital communication privilege. Many people are aware that certain privileges arise but often do not know exactly what protections these privileges provide. The following article discusses both of the matrimonial privileges in Texas.

See the full text of Texas Rule of Evidence 504 – Spousal Privileges

What is Spousal Immunity? How does Spousal Immunity work in Texas?

Spousal immunity is the privilege that exists in a criminal trial for the defendant’s spouse not to be called as a witness in certain situations.  Tex. R. Evid. 504(b). This privilege applies to spouses that are married to the defendant during trial and are asked to testify as to matters that occurred during the spouse’s marriage to the defendant. The non-defendant spouse holds this privilege; meaning he or she is the one who may invoke the privilege not to testify and it is ultimately his or her decision. Tex. R. Evid. 504(b)(3). Thus, if the spouse wants to voluntarily testify for the State, she may do so regardless of whether the defendant objects to the spouse’s testimony.

Spousal immunity does not stop the defendant from calling their current spouse as a witness. If a defendant chooses to do so the spouse cannot assert this privilege and will be required to testify. With that, if the defendant does not call the spouse and surrounding evidence suggests the spouse could testify to relevant matters the State is allowed to comment about that. 504(b)(2).

Exceptions to Spousal Immunity in Texas

There are two exceptions to spousal immunity in Texas.

  • First, the privilege does not apply in a criminal proceeding in which the defendant has committed against the spouse (e.g. Domestic Violence) or prosecution for bigamy.
  • Second, the privilege does not apply when the spouse is called to testify about matters that occurred before they were married to the defendant.

What is the Texas Marital Communication Privilege?

Under Texas Rule of Evidence 504(a), spouses have the privilege to prevent testimony of certain communications made during the marriage from one spouse to the other spouse.  Unlike the spousal immunity privilege, the marital communication privilege may be invoked by either the defendant or the spouse being called as a witness. Additionally, this privilege survives divorce; meaning it applies whether or not the defendant and the spouse are still married as long as the communications were made while they were married. Tex. R. Evid. 504(a)(2).

This privilege only applies to communications that were intended to be confidential, that is, they were made privately with no intent to disclose to anyone other than the spouse. A communication will still be confidential if someone overheard the conversation if the defendant spouse made the statement without knowledge or intent that the other person would hear the conversation. Basically, the requirement is that the communication made was intended for the spouse’s ears only.

Exceptions to the Marital Communications Privilege in Texas

There are two exceptions to the confidential communications privilege.

  • First, if the communication was made in whole or in part to aid in the commission of a crime the privilege does not apply.
  • Second, the marital communication privilege does not apply in prosecutions for crimes against the defendant’s spouse, any minor child, or a member of the defendant or defendant spouse’s household.

In conclusion, there are certain situations where matters occurring between spouses are kept within the sanctity of the marriage and will not come out in court. However, as you can see these privileges are very specific and it is important to be aware of what exactly is privileged and when such privileges apply.

See the full text of Texas Rule of Evidence 504 – Spousal Privileges

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