Trammel v. United States

Decision Date27 February 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-5705,78-5705
PartiesOtis TRAMMEL, Jr., Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Prior to his trial with others on federal drug charges, petitioner advised the District Court that the Government intended to call his wife (who had been named in the indictment as an unindicted co-conspirator) as an adverse witness and asserted a privilege to prevent her from testifying. The District Court ruled that confidential communications between petitioner and his wife were privileged and therefore inadmissible, but the wife was permitted to testify to any act she observed before or during the marriage and to any communication made in the presence of a third person. Primarily on the basis of his wife's testimony, petitioner was convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's contention that the admission of his wife's adverse testimony, over his objection, contravened the decision in Hawkins v. United States, 358 U.S. 74, 79 S.Ct. 136, 3 L.Ed.2d 125, barring the testimony of one spouse against the other unless both consent.

Held : The Court modifies the Hawkins rule so that the witness-spouse alone has a privilege to refuse to testify adversely; the witness may be neither compelled to testify nor foreclosed from testifying. Here, petitioner's spouse chose to testify against him; that she did so after a grant of immunity and assurances of lenient treatment does not render her testimony involuntary, and thus petitioner's claim of privilege was properly rejected. Pp. 43-53.

(a) The modern justification for the privilege against adverse spousal testimony is its perceived role in fostering the harmony and sanctity of the marriage relationship. While this Court, in Hawkins, supra, reaffirmed the vitality of the common-law privilege in the federal courts, it made clear that its decision was not meant to "foreclose whatever changes in the rule may eventually be dictated by 'reason and experience.' " 358 U.S., at 79, 79 S.Ct., at 139. Pp. 43-46.

(b) Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence acknowledges the federal courts' authority to continue the evolutionary development of testimonial privileges in federal criminal trials "governed by the principles of the common law as they may be interpreted . . . in the light of reason and experience." P. 47.

(c) Since 1958, when Hawkins was decided, the trend in state law has been toward divesting the accused of the privilege to bar adverse spousal testimony. Pp. 48-50.

(d) Information privately disclosed between husband and wife in the confidence of the marital relationship is privileged under the independent rule protecting confidential marital communications, Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 332, 71 S.Ct. 301, 95 L.Ed. 306; and the Hawkins privilege, which sweeps more broadly than any other testimonial privilege, is not limited to confidential communications but is invoked to also exclude evidence of criminal acts and of communications in the presence of third persons. The ancient foundations for so sweeping a privilege—whereby a woman was regarded as a chattel and denied a separate legal identity—have long since disappeared, and the contemporary justification for affording an accused such a privilege is unpersuasive. When one spouse is willing to testify against the other in a criminal proceeding—whatever the motivation there is probably little in the way of marital harmony for the privilege to preserve. Consideration of the foundations for the privilege and its history thus shows that "reason and experience" no longer justify so sweeping a rule as that found acceptable in Hawkins. Pp. 50-53.

583 P.2d 1166, affirmed.

Sol. Gen. Wade H. McCree, Jr., Washington, D. C., for respondent.

J. Terry Wiggins, Denver, Colo., for petitioner.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to consider whether an accused may invoke the privilege against adverse spousal testimony so as to exclude the voluntary testimony of his wife. 440 U.S. 934, 99 S.Ct. 1277, 59 L.Ed.2d 492 (1979). This calls for a re-examination of Hawkins v. United States, 358 U.S. 74, 79 S.Ct. 136, 3 L.Ed.2d 125 (1958).


On March 10, 1976, petitioner Otis Trammel was indicted with two others, Edwin Lee Roberts and Joseph Freeman, for importing heroin into the United States from Thailand and the Philippine Islands and for conspiracy to import heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a), 962(a), and 963. The indictment also named six unindicted co-conspirators, including petitioner's wife Elizabeth Ann Trammel.

According to the indictment, petitioner and his wife flew from the Philippines to California in August 1975, carrying with them a quantity of heroin. Freeman and Roberts assisted them in its distribution. Elizabeth Trammel then traveled to Thailand where she purchased another supply of the drug. On November 3, 1975, with four ounces of heroin on her person, she boarded a plane for the United States. During a routine customs search in Hawaii, she was searched, the heroin was discovered, and she was arrested. After discussions with Drug Enforcement Administration agents, she agreed to cooperate with the Government.

Prior to trial on this indictment, petitioner moved to sever his case from that of Roberts and Freeman. He advised the court that the Government intended to call his wife as an adverse witness and asserted his claim to a privilege to prevent her from testifying against him. At a hearing on the motion, Mrs. Trammel was called as a Government witness under a grant of use immunity. She testified that she and petitioner were married in May 1975 and that they remained married.1 She explained that her cooperation with the Government was based on assurances that she would be given lenient treatment.2 She then described, in considerable detail, her role and that of her husband in the heroin distribution conspiracy.

After hearing this testimony, the District Court ruled that Mrs. Trammel could testify in support of the Government's case to any act she observed during the marriage and to any communication "made in the presence of a third person"; however, confidential communications between petitioner and his wife were held to be privileged and inadmissible. The motion to sever was denied.

At trial, Elizabeth Trammel testified within the limits of the court's pretrial ruling; her testimony, as the Government concedes, constituted virtually its entire case against petitioner. He was found guilty on both the substantive and conspiracy charges and sentenced to an indeterminate term of years pursuant to the Federal Youth Corrections Act, 18 U.S.C. § 5010(b).3

In the Court of Appeals petitioner's only claim of error was that the admission of the adverse testimony of his wife, over his objection, contravened this Court's teaching in Hawkins v. United States, supra, and therefore constituted reversible error. The Court of Appeals rejected this contention. It concluded that Hawkins did not prohibit "the voluntary testimony of a spouse who appears as an unindicted co-conspirator under grant of immunity from the Government in return for her testimony." 583 F.2d 1166, 1168 (CA10 1978).


The privilege claimed by petitioner has ancient roots. Writing in 1628, Lord Coke observed that "it hath beene resolved by the Justices that a wife cannot be produced either against or for her husband." 1 E. Coke, A Commentarie upon Littleton 6b (1628). See, generally, 8 J. Wigmore, Evidence § 2227 (McNaughton rev. 1961). This spousal disqualification sprang from two canons of medieval jurisprudence: first, the rule that an accused was not permitted to testify in his own behalf because of his interest in the proceeding; second, the concept that husband and wife were one, and that since the woman had no recognized separate legal existence, the husband was that one. From those two now long-abandoned doctrines, it followed that what was inadmissible from the lips of the defendant-husband was also inadmissible from his wife.

Despite its medieval origins, this rule of spousal disqualification remained intact in most common-law jurisdictions well into the 19th century. See id., § 2333. It was applied by this Court in Stein v. Bowman, 13 Pet. 209, 220-223, 10 L.Ed. 129 (1839), in Graves v. United States, 150 U.S. 118, 14 S.Ct. 40, 37 L.Ed. 1021 (1893), and again in Jin Fuey Moy v. United States, 254 U.S. 189, 195, 41 S.Ct. 98, 101, 65 L.Ed. 214 (1920), where it was deemed so well established a proposition as to "hardly requir[e] mention." Indeed, it was not until 1933, in Funk v. United States, 290 U.S. 371, 54 S.Ct. 212, 78 L.Ed. 369, that this Court abolished the testimonial disqualification in the federal courts, so as to permit the spouse of a defendant to testify in the defendant's behalf. Funk, however, left undisturbed the rule that either spouse could prevent the other from giving adverse testimony. Id., at 373, 54 S.Ct., at 212. The rule thus evolved into one of privilege rather than one of absolute disqualification. See J. Maguire, Evidence, Common Sense and Common Law 78-92 (1947).

The modern justification for this privilege against adverse spousal testimony is its perceived role in fostering the harmony and sanctity of the marriage relationship. Notwithstanding this benign purpose, the rule was sharply criticized.4 Professor Wigmore termed it "the merest anachronism in legal theory and an indefensible obstruction to truth in practice." 8 Wigmore § 2228, at 221. The Committee on Improvements in the Law of Evidence of the American Bar Association called for its abolition. 63 American Bar Association Reports 594-595 (1938). In its place, Wigmore and others suggested a privilege protecting only private marital communications, modeled on the privilege between priest and penitent, attorney and client, and physician and patient. See 8 Wigmore § 2332 et seq.5

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