291 U.S. 7 (1934), 338, Wolfle v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 338
Citation:291 U.S. 7, 54 S.Ct. 279, 78 L.Ed. 617
Party Name:Wolfle v. United States
Case Date:January 08, 1934
Court:United States Supreme Court

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291 U.S. 7 (1934)

54 S.Ct. 279, 78 L.Ed. 617



United States

No. 338

United States Supreme Court

January 8, 1934




1. In the absence of congressional legislation on the subject, the admissibility of testimony in the federal Courts in criminal causes is governed by common law principles, as interpreted and applied by those courts in the light of reason and experience. Funk v. United States, 290 U.S. 371. P. 12.

2. The basis of the rule of evidence excluding proof of confidential communications between husband and wife, is the protection of the marriage relation. P. 14.

3. As the privilege suppresses relevant testimony, it should be allowed only where it is plain that marital confidence cannot otherwise be reasonably preserved. Pp. 14, 17.

4. A confidential communication by husband to wife through the medium of his stenographer held admissible upon proof of it by the stenographer testifying from the stenographic notes. P. 16.

64 F.2d 556 affirmed.

Certiorari, 290 U.S. 617, to review the affirmance of a conviction under an indictment charging unlawful uses of the mails for the purpose of effecting a scheme to defraud.

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STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case comes here on certiorari to review a ruling of the District Court for Western Washington in a criminal trial, admitting in evidence against the accused, the petitioner here, a statement contained in a letter written by him to his wife, but proved by the testimony of a stenographer, reading from her notes, to whom petitioner had dictated the letter and who had transcribed it. The ruling was upheld and the conviction sustained by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 64 F.2d 566, which adopted as the test of admissibility of the evidence its interpretation of the statute in force in the T^erritory of Washington at the time of its admission to statehood. Section 392, Code of Washington 1881; see State v. Nelson, 39 Wash. 221, 81 P. 721; State v. Rasmussen, 125 Wash. 176, 215 P. 332.

During the present term, this Court has resolved conflicting views expressed in its earlier opinions by holding that the rules governing the competence of witnesses in criminal trials in the federal courts are not necessarily restricted to those local rules in force at the time of the admission into the Union of the particular state where the trial takes place, but are governed by common law principles as interpreted and applied by the federal courts in the light of reason and experience. Funk v. United States, 290 U.S. 371. If any different rule with respect to the admissibility of testimony has been thought to apply in the federal courts, Wigmore on Evidence, 2d ed., § 6; compare Alford v. United States, 282 U.S. 687, it is clear that it

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should be the same as that governing the competence of witnesses. So our decision here, in the absence of congressional legislation on the subject, is to be controlled by common law principles, not by local statute.

The statement to which the witness was permitted to testify in the present case was a relevant admission by petitioner, probative of his guilty purpose or intent to commit the crime charged. It was therefore rightly received in evidence unless it should have been excluded because made in a communication to his wife.

The government insists that confidential communications between husband and wife are privileged only when the testimony offered is that of one of the spouses, and that the privilege does not exclude proof of communications between them, however confidential, by a witness who is neither the husband nor the wife. The question thus raised remains open in the federal courts. * But we

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find it unnecessary to answer it here, for, in the view we take, the challenged testimony to the communication by the husband to his wife is not within the privilege because of the voluntary disclosure by him to a third person, his stenographer.

The basis of the immunity given to communications between husband and wife is the protection of marital confidences, regarded as so essential to the preservation of the marriage relationship as to outweigh the disadvantages to the administration of justice which the privilege entails. See Hammons v. State, 73 Ark. 495, 500, 84 S.W. 718; Sexton v. Sexton, 129 Iowa, 487, 489ff, 105 N.W. 314; O'Toole v. Ohio German Fire Ins. Co., 159 Mich. 187, 192, 123 N.W. 795; Wigmore on Evidence (2d Ed.) § 2336. Hence it is that the privilege with respect to communications extends to the testimony of husband or wife, even though the different privilege, excluding the testimony of one against the other, is not involved. See Gordon, Rankin & Co. v. Tweedy, 71 Ala. 202, 210; Wickes v. Walden, 228 Ill. 56, 81 N.E. 798; Southwick v. Southwick, 49 N.Y. 510, 519; Wigmore on Evidence, 2d ed., §§ 2227-2228, 2332-2333.

Communications between the...

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