Can spouses testify against each other in court?

While I know not to believe everything you see on TV, some late night watching of Law and Order led me to wonder. Between the knitting and the conversation I didn’t catch all of it, but it seemed to me that on the show a wife wanted to testify against her husband, who had only married her to steal her money, but couldn’t because they were married. In the end it was discovered that the man was also married to another woman who was running the same scheme with someone else, so the wife could testify since their marriage wasn’t valid. But what I don’t understand is why she couldn’t testify in the first place. If, for example, my husband committed a murder and then confessed to me, would I not be able to report him? What if I caught him in the act? Would I be able to testify? Previously I thought the law was that spouses couldn’t be required to testify, but could do so if they chose. So who’s right, Law and Order or my vague recollection from high school history class? And if Law and Order is right, then why can’t spouses choose to testify against each other?

I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other. If a husband is charged with spousal abuse, his wife can certainly choose to get on the stand and testify against him.

IANAL, but according to this article it seems there are situations in which someone can prevent their spouse from testifying against them about “confidential communications made during marriage”.

If I remember from classes years ago it depends on the state.

I havw wondered about New Your?

Speaking very broadly, there are two separate priviliges regarding spouses: one involves spousal immunity from testifying, and the other involves confidential communications made during marriage.

To reuse an example, say a husband comes home covered in blood after a gruesome murder occurs, a murder for which he is later indicted. The wife sees him all bloody. The prosecutor wants to put her on the stand to testify about what she saw. Under the spousal immunity privilege, she cannot be forced to testify if she doesn’t want to, because you cannot be compelled to testify against your spouse. However, the majority rule is that the testifying spouse is the holder of the privilege, not the defendant spouse. In other words, she can testify if she wants to, but can’t be compelled to against her will. Also, the privilege does not apply after the marriage, only during.

Let’s also say that on that night she asked about the blood, and the husband responds “well, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been stabbing this guy. Could you fetch my liniment for my stabber’s elbow?” This would be protected by the confidential communications privilege, which acts a lot like the attorney-client privilege. The majority rule is that both spouses hold this privilege, not just the testifying spouse, meaning the defendant can prevent the spouse-witness from ever divulging what she was told in confidence during the marriage. Even if they are later divorced, she cannot testify as to what she was told in confidence, although she can testify about the bloodstains she saw if she wants to.

An important exception: if the case is one that involves a crime that is “destructive of the family unit”, like spousal abuse or child abuse, spousal privileges don’t apply. Since the rationale of the privileges is preservation of the marriage/family unit, applying the privileges in those cases would defeat their purposes.

To simplify what pravnik said, and what I’ve always heard, a spouse can’t be forced to testify, but if they want to, they can only testify about what they saw, not what they heard.

So, tell your spouse, you’re safe… Show your spouse, you better not piss her off!