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Spousal Privilege Debate

April 24, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law

Spousal privilege rules may be changing, criminal lawyers in New Jersey report, depending on a decision being weighed by the state’s Supreme Court justices. In a recent case, a husband and wife charged with drug trafficking crimes may be forced to concede their cell phone conversations are evidence, after police tapped their phone lines in order to gather evidence. 

Police have accused Teron Savoy, of Lakewood, of heading up a drug ring that sold heroin and cocaine in both Ocean and Monmouth counties, and his wife, Yolanda Terry, of related charges. In their investigation, law enforcement officials tapped Savoy’s cell phone line, in order to listen in on his conversations and gain information regarding drug pickups, drop offs, and sales. Now that the case has gone to trial, the prosecutor requested that a ruling to suppress the evidence gathered from the cell phone tap, handed down from the Appellate Division, citing shared criminality that comes in to play between Savoy and Terry. 

Originally, the Appellate Division applied spousal privilege in determining that Savoy and Terry’s cell phone conversations were private, and protected from police investigation and analysis. However, since one spouse is not testifying against the other, and both are charged with related crimes, the protection of spousal privilege may not apply, criminal lawyers in New Jersey say. In this case, the third-party involvement of the police department—in the wiretap—monitored the pair’s cellphone conversations per a court order, and should make any evidence gathered permissible under state law. 

Supreme Court justices, in determining whether spousal privilege applies here, used a “nosy neighbor” comparison to define the third-party involvement; similarly, a neighbor or person nearby may be able to overhear a conversation between a husband and wife, one that may not have been intended for the eavesdropper’s ears. On the other side of the argument, some of the Supreme Court justices argued that spouses have the right to an expectation of privacy when talking on their cell phones, citing the Wiretap Act—even with the advancements in technology that allow cell phone conversations to take place in public, where they could easily be overheard. 

The decision hinges on the scope of the spousal privilege laws. If the state Supreme Court determines that this privilege only prevents one spouse from testifying against the other, then the cell phone tap, because it was legally executed, can stand as evidence. But if the tap falls within the parameters of spousal privilege and exclusive conversations, any evidence obtained may need to be stricken from the case and the court proceedings. 

In today’s world, cell phones and mobile technology have made great advancements in our methods of communication, and the laws have to be constantly evaluated and redefined to keep up with these changes. The criminal attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, a New Jersey-based law firm, serve clients who may be entangled in technological evidence issues, and who need representation or legal advice regarding changing laws. To discuss your case, and the evidence against you, contact an HCK attorney today for a free, no-strings consultation.  

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