A proposal making its way through the New Jersey Senate would cut back on the evidentiary privileges that spouses share when testifying against each other in a criminal case. The bill, S-1989, would allow a spouse to testify in cases where he or she witnessed the crime before the marriage, or who tampered with or handled evidence in a way that changes the chain of custody, family lawyers in New Jersey say.
The bill was drafted by Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr, in response to concerns from the prosecution in State v. Mauti, 208 N.J. 519, a 2012 case in which a woman was charged with removing evidence in a sexual assault case involving her then-fiancé. The couple later was married, and their changed status made it difficult for courts to determine how best to examine the witnesses and take action in the case.
In 2006, James Mauti, a doctor from Springfield, NJ, was treating an office worker, known as “Joanne” in the court documents, for back pain when he allegedly used muscle relaxers and liquid codeine to drug and sexually assault her. Joanne reported the assault to her brother, father, and sister Jeannette, who was Mauti’s fiancée at the time, and shared a house with him. Jeannette moved out for a brief period of time after the incident, and took her fiancé’s Palm Pilot to check for incriminating photos or evidence. She also took and washed a pair of boxer shorts and a towel that Mauti may have used to hide the physical evidence of the assault.
Jeannette was charged with third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution of a defendant by concealing or suppressing evidence, although the prosecution later dropped this charge. She was called as a witness in Mauti’s case, and testified twice. In 2007, the couple announced their engagement after getting back together, and several weeks later, Mauti was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault. The prosecution sought to block or delay the marriage based on the criminal charges, as they did not want the spousal privilege laws to hinder the investigation. However, Mauti and Jeannette were allowed to go ahead with the wedding in late October of 2007. The next day, Jeannette invoked the spousal privilege to avoid testifying against her new husband.
Currently in New Jersey, a spouse can testify against the other partner only in circumstances where the spouse is the complainant, or if the defendant has been charged with crimes against the spouse or their children. This is pursuant to the Evidence Act of 1960, and N.J. Rules of Evidence 23. Now, family lawyers in New Jersey say that the proposed bill would update policies to avoid situations like Jeannette and James Mauti’s, and eliminate abuse of the spousal privilege.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family attorneys represent spouses who have been called to testify against each other, as well as engaged couples who want to explore options during criminal investigations. If you need legal counsel or guidance, contact an HCK attorney for a consultation today.