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Marital Privilege Still Stands in Drug Lord’s Trial

June 13, 2013 | Posted In Criminal Law - Drugs

A New Jersey appeals court ruled last month that the personal mobile phone calls and text messages made between an accused drug kingpin and his wife were protected under the marital privilege law. Teron Savoy, of Lakewood, has been accused of leading a trafficking network that distributes heroin and cocaine in various counties around the state, and his wife, Yolanda Terry, is facing lesser charges. The decision to exclude the calls and messages is precedential, criminal attorneys in New Jersey report.

In State v. Terry, A-0128-12, the state appellate panel overturned the original ruling issued by a trial judge. He had previously ordered Savoy and Terry to provide the court with transcripts from their personal phone calls and copies of their text messages, claiming a crime-fraud exception to the marital privilege usually afforded husband and wife. But the appellate division ruled that there is no exception in New Jersey, and that the courts could not just create one. In their ruling, the appeals court cited a 50-year-old statute that grants the state Legislature and the New Jersey governor the right to decide on evidentiary rule changes that the courts propose.

During the investigation into Teron’s alleged drug ring, government agents placed court-authorized wiretaps on two of Savoy’s cellphones. Through these wiretaps the agents allegedly procured communications between Savoy and his wife involving arrangements for Terry to pick up drug proceeds from a man who is now also facing criminal charges. The state indicated that it intended to use two or three such interspousal conversations at trial, along with five text messages between the couple, but Teron’s New Jersey criminal attorneys objected. They claimed that the conversations were protected by spousal privilege and, as such, could not be used as evidence.

Spousal privilege protects any information shared between husband and wife, and prevents said information from being used against either party as evidence. Along with this protection, a husband cannot be forced to testify against his wife in court, and vice versa. On appeal, the panel found public policy concerns that would allow the crime-fraud exception, which has been previously applied to the attorney-client privilege, to extend to marital privilege as well. The effect of a privilege is to keep relevant evidence out of the courtroom, and the judges on the appeals panel wrote that immunization might encourage husband-wife accomplice teams and efforts to frustrate law enforcement attempts.

But even with that being the case, the court ultimately ruled that it had no power to create an exception, looking to the Evidence Act of 1960, in which the process is delegated to the three branches of government. According to the Evidence Act, the Supreme Court must notify the Legislature and the governor when it attempts to make changes to the already existing evidence rules, and that these rules take effect unless they are canceled by a joint resolution from the Senate and General Assembly.

At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our experienced criminal attorneys keep up-to-date with precedential decisions made in state courts, and provide legal advice and representation for anyone whose rights to spousal privilege have been violated in a criminal case.

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