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New Bill Limits Spousal Privilege

September 11, 2013 | Posted In Criminal Law, Recent News - Criminal Law |

The state Senate is currently advancing a bill that plans to change the rules of spousal privilege in certain cases, criminal attorneys in New Jersey report. The bill, S-2909, aims to limit the right to confidentiality between married persons in cases where one spouse is testifying or has testified as a witness to the case prior to the marriage, or where a spouse knowingly handled evidence in a way that could be considered tampering or altering the chain of custody. Lawmakers hope that these measures will ensure that suspect marriages are thoroughly examined, and that spousal involvement in criminal cases is limited. 

In New Jersey, the Evidence Act of 1960, through N.J.S.A 2A:84A-17 and Evidence Rule 23, confirmed that married couples should not testify against each other in court, except to prove the truth of their marriage or civil union. Currently, the only exception to this ruling occurs in cases where one spouse agrees to testify, or where one spouse has been accused of committing crimes against the other or their children. But when the state Supreme Court ruled on a recent case of a woman requesting spousal privilege in the criminal trial of her new husband, despite having previously testified and tampered with evidence, the bill was introduced to expand the Act’s exceptions. 

In 2012, James Mauti, a sports medicine physician, was accused of sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s sister when she saw him in 2006 to be treated for back pain. The sister, Joanne, claimed that Mauti sedated her and assaulted her on the examination table. The following day, Joanne told her sister Jeannette, Mauti’s live-in girlfriend, about the assault, and contacted the police. The girlfriend investigated her sister’s claim herself—checking Mauti’s Palm Pilot and removing towels and a pair of boxer shorts with potentially incriminating DNA evidence—but allegedly found nothing, cleaned and hid the evidence, and reconciled with her boyfriend. 

In the official investigation that followed, Jeannette was subpoenaed and testified twice before a grand jury. In 2007, Mauti was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault based on lab results from Joanne’s urine, which tested positive for a date-rape drug. The prosecution tried to block the impending marriage between Mauti and Jeannette, claiming it was a sham, but the two were married a few months later. Jeannette then sought spousal privilege to prevent her from testifying against her now-husband, despite having already given testimony, and handling the evidence. 

The state Supreme Court ultimately made the decision to grant Jeannette confidentiality in her husband’s case, stating that to deny it would be to “eviscerate the privilege” altogether. Shortly afterwards, Senator Tom Kean Jr introduced S-2909, hoping to widen the loophole in New Jersey’s existing spousal privilege laws in cases where the marriage is suspect, or the spouse in question is more than just a witness to his or her partner’s crimes. 

At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A., the criminal lawyers keep up-to-date with changing laws and precedential court decisions. They represent anyone facing criminal charges in the state. 

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