Trammel v. United States
445 U.S. 40 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40 (1980)

Trammel v. United States

No. 78-5705

Argued October 29, 30, 1979

Decided February 27, 1980

445 U.S. 40

Syllabus

Prior to his trial with others on federal drug charges, petitioner advised the District Court that the Government intended to call his wife (who had been named in the indictment as an unindicted coconspirator) as an adverse witness and asserted a privilege to prevent her from testifying. The District Court ruled that confidential communications between petitioner and his wife were privileged, and therefore inadmissible, but the wife was permitted to testify to any act she observed before or during the marriage and to any communication made in the presence of a third person. Primarily on the basis of his wife's testimony, petitioner was convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's contention that the admission of his wife's adverse testimony, over his objection, contravened the decision in Hawkins v. United States,358 U. S. 74, barring the testimony of one spouse against the other unless both consent.

Held: The Court modifies the Hawkins rule so that the witness-spouse alone has a privilege to refuse to testify adversely; the witness may be neither compelled to testify nor foreclosed from testifying. Here, petitioner's spouse chose to testify against him; that she did so after a grant of immunity and assurances of lenient treatment does not render her testimony involuntary, and thus petitioner's claim of privilege was properly rejected. Pp. 445 U. S. 43-53.

(a) The modern justification for the privilege against adverse spousal testimony is its perceived role in fostering the harmony and sanctity of the marriage relationship. While this Court, in Hawkins, supra, reaffirmed the vitality of the common law privilege in the federal courts, it made clear that its decision was not meant to "foreclose whatever changes in the rule may eventually be dictated by reason and experience.'" 358 U.S. at 358 U. S. 79. Pp. 445 U. S. 43-46.

(b) Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence acknowledges the federal courts' authority to continue the evolutionary development of testimonial privileges in federal criminal trials "governed by the principles of the common law as they may be interpreted . . . in the light of reason and experience." P. 445 U. S. 47.

(c) Since 1958, when Hawkins was decided, the trend in state law

Page 445 U. S. 41

has been toward divesting the accused of the privilege to bar adverse spousal testimony. Pp. 445 U. S. 48-50.

(d) Information privately disclosed between husband and wife in the confidence of the marital relationship is privileged under the independent rule protecting confidential marital communications, Blau v. United States,340 U. S. 332; and the Hawkins privilege, which sweeps more broadly than any other testimonial privilege, is not limited to confidential communications, but is invoked to also exclude evidence of criminal acts and of communications in the presence of third persons. The ancient foundations for so sweeping a privilege -- whereby a woman was regarded as a chattel and denied a separate legal identity -- have long since disappeared, and the contemporary justification for affording an accused such a privilege is unpersuasive. When one spouse is willing to testify against the other in a criminal proceeding -- whatever the motivation -- there is probably little in the way of marital harmony for the privilege to preserve. Consideration of the foundations for the privilege and its history thus shows that "reason and experience" no longer justify so sweeping a rule as that found acceptable in Hawkins. Pp. 445 U. S. 50-53.

583 F.2d 1166, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 445 U. S. 53.

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