California, like other states, recognizes the marital /spousal privilege. This means that
- you have the right not to testify against your husband or wife in a criminal jury trial when they face charges of a crime, and
- you have the right not to disclose any confidential communications between you and your spouse.
This includes the right to prevent your spouse from disclosing any such confidential communications.
The spousal privilege is an extremely important evidentiary privilege. This is because
- many criminal defendants have spouses or ex-spouses to whom the marital privilege might apply, and
- spouses are often valuable sources of information about the events giving rise to criminal charges. 1 2
Here are some examples of how the spousal privilege might work in a California criminal case:
- You face charges of mail fraud. The prosecutor suspects that your wife may know something about the scheme that gave rise to the charges. The prosecutor may not call your wife as a witness against you because of the spousal privilege.
- Prosecutors charge you with a robbery that occurred during your marriage to a man from whom you are now divorced. The prosecution calls him to testify about things you might have told him about the robbery. You have the right to prevent him from disclosing anything you told him in confidence while you were married.
In order to help you better understand the spousal privilege in California, our criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
- 1. What is the spousal testimonial privilege (Evidence Code 970 & 971)?
- 2. What is the privilege for confidential marital communications (Evidence Code 980)?
- 3. How do I waive the California marital privilege?
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
The spousal testimonial privilege (set forth in California Evidence Code sections 970 and 971) means that prosecutors cannot force you to testify in court—including in a criminal case—against your husband or wife.3
This aspect of the California marital privilege is an exception to the general rule that anyone who prosecutors call to be a witness in a court case must testify.4
One important point about the marital testimonial privilege in California is that it does not mean that your spouse cannot testify against you. It only means that they may refuse to testify against you if they so choose.5
However, your spouse may also decide that they want to testify against you. If this is the case, then they may do so—and you have no right to prevent the testimony.6
Example: Prosecutors charge John with burglary. His wife Debra may refuse to testify against him if she does not want to. Though if she does want to testify against him, John has no right to prevent her.
The marital testimonial privilege only applies to people who are married at the time the testimony would occur. Once you get divorced, this spousal privilege disappears.7
In other words, the marital privilege not to testify applies only to current spouses—not to
- fiancés/fiancées, or
- common-law spouses (people who live together as spouses but have not formally married).8
Example: Let’s return to John and Debra from the example above. They divorce by the time prosecutors charge John.
Debra would prefer not to testify against John in his criminal trial, but the spousal privilege no longer applies to her. Therefore, the prosecution can force her to testify against her will.
In addition, the spousal privilege for testimony only applies to valid marriages. This means that it does not apply if your marriage is invalid because:
- It is bigamous (you are married to more than one person at the same time);9
- It is a case of incest (marriage between close relatives);10 or
- You and your spouse married solely to secure an immigration benefit or for another fraudulent purpose.11
Finally, the marital testimonial privilege will not apply to people who marry solely for the purpose of claiming the privilege. This means that it will not apply if:
- The alleged crime occurred before you got married,
- The spouse that prosecutors call as a witness knew about the subject they are being called to testify about before the marriage, and
- When you got married, the spouse being called as a witness knew that the other spouse had been arrested for or charged with the alleged crime.12
Example: Prosecutors charge Roberta with fraud. Enrique is Roberta’s best friend and knows all about her hacking activities.
As soon as Enrique finds out prosecutors want him to testify against Roberta, the two of them elope. Though Enrique still must testify against Roberta since their sham marriage will not qualify them for the spousal privilege.
In addition, the spousal testimonial privilege does not apply to California criminal cases where one spouse is charged with:
- Any crime against the person or property of the other spouse or a child, parent, relative, or cohabitant of either spouse,
- Any crime against the person or property of a third person that occurred in the course of a crime against the person or property of the other spouse,
- Bigamy, or
- Child neglect or spousal abandonment.13
Example: Tony marries Elaine, who has an 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. One night while Elaine is out, the child falls out the window due to Tony’s lack of supervision.
After prosecutors charge Tony with child endangerment, they can call Elaine to testify against Tony even if she does not want to. This is because prosecutors charge Tony with a crime against her child—and this means the marital privilege does not apply.
The other major form of marital privilege in California is the privilege for “confidential marital communications,” set out in Evidence Code 980.14
Under the confidential marital communications privilege, you have a privilege not to disclose in court any confidential communications that occurred between you and your spouse while you were married.15
There are two very important differences between the spousal testimonial privilege and the privilege for confidential marital communication. These are:
- The privilege for confidential marital communication belongs to both you and your spouse—that is, either you or your spouse can stop the other from testifying about confidential communications between you even if one of you wishes to do so;16 and
- The privilege for confidential marital communications applies even after you have divorced.17
Example: Charlene kills her abusive mother with a knife. When Charlene tells her husband Mikey about the killing, he files for divorce.
During Charlene’s trial for voluntary manslaughter, Charlene can prevent Mickey from testifying about what she told him about the killing. He can, however, testify about other things that are not confidential marital communications—such as the fact that she was not at home when the killing occurred.
The privilege for confidential marital communications applies only to things that you and your spouse tell each other another while you are married. It does not apply to communications that take place between you
- before you get married, or
- after you get divorced.18
Example: While Rick and Jean are dating, Rick tells Jean he deals marijuana. Then they marry but divorce after a few months.
If prosecutors then charge Rick with selling drugs and call Jean to testify against him, Jean must testify honestly about what Rick told her about selling marijuana before they got married. This is because neither California marital privilege applies.
- The spousal testimonial privilege does not apply because she and Rick are divorced.
- Plus the marital confidential communications privilege does not apply to things Rick told her before they were married.
Also, this privilege applies only to “communications” between you and your spouse—that is, things that you tell each other, either
- in writing, or
The marital communications privilege does not apply to acts—or to the fact that communication occurred at all.20
Example: After John commits burglary, he calls his wife Debra to tell her. Later, she saw him hiding stolen jewelry in their garage.
Because of the confidential marital communication privilege, Debra may not testify about anything he told her about the burglary. However, she may testify about the fact that
- he called her on his cell phone the night of the burglary, and
- she saw him hiding jewelry in the garage.
Finally, the marital privilege applies only to confidential communications between you and your spouse.21 It does not apply to things that you and your spouse say to each other loudly in public, for example, or with other people around.
Example: At a cocktail party, Terrence and his wife Maureen get into a loud argument about an insider trading scheme Terrence is participating in. The other guests overhear quite a bit about the details.
Prosecutors later charge Terrence with securities fraud. The spousal privilege does not protect his conversation with Maureen at the party—because it was not a confidential marital communication.
There are two major exceptions to this confidential marital communications spousal privilege.
First, this marital privilege does not apply to any communications that were made to enable or help anyone to commit or plan
- a crime or
So, if you and your spouse carry out criminal activity together, the marital communications privilege does not cover any conversations you have to plan or enable that activity.
(Note that, as long as you are still married when criminal charges are filed, prosecutors cannot force you to testify against your spouse – and vice versa – because of the spousal testimonial privilege.)
Example: Police arrest spouses Cecilia and Ricardo for an extortion they were planning. Cecilia wants to come clean, and Ricardo does not have the right to prevent Cecilia from testifying about the conversations they had because they took place to enable the planning of a crime.
Also, the marital communications privilege does not apply when a criminal defendant who is one of the spouses chooses to reveal the confidential communications in their own criminal case.23
If you hold a marital/spousal privilege in California, certain actions can “waive” that privilege—that is, make it disappear.
According to San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Neil Shouse24:
“All evidentiary privileges—including the marital privilege—can be waived. Generally speaking, the way waiver works is this: if you do whatever it is you have a privilege not to do (such as testify against your spouse, or reveal confidential marital communications), then you no longer have that privilege.”
First of all, you waive your spousal testimonial privilege in a given court proceeding by choosing to testify against your spouse in that proceeding.25
In other words, if you testify against your spouse in a particular court case, you may not then claim the marital privilege to avoid giving different or further testimony in that same case.
Also, there is a waiver of confidential marital communications privilege if you either:
- Disclose a significant part of the privileged communication, or
- Consent to the disclosure of the privileged communication by anyone else.26
For legal representation…
If you have additional questions about the marital/spousal privilege in California, or you would like to discuss your case confidentially with one of our attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- Evidence Code 970. See also People v. McWhorter (Cal., 2009), 47 Cal. 4th 318; People v. Barefield (Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District, 2021) 68 Cal. App. 5th 890.
- Evidence Code 980. See also Doe v. Yim (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2020) 55 Cal. App. 5th 573.
- Evidence Code 970.
- Evidence Code 911.
- Evidence Code 970.
- See same.
- Evidence Code 970. Evidence Code 971. See also People v. Dorsey (1975) 46 Cal.App.3d 706, 716-17.
- See same. See also People v. Delph (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 411, 416.
- See People v. Gallego (1990) 52 Cal.3d 115, 176-77.
- People v. MacDonald (1938) 24 Cal.App.2d 702, 704.
- Lutwak v. United States (1953) 344 U.S. 604, 614.
- Evidence Code 972.
- Evidence Code 972.
- Evidence Code 980.
- See same. See also People v. Dorsey, endnote 7, above, at 717.
- Evidence Code 980.
- Rubio v. Superior Court (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 1343, 1347.
- Same, at 1348.
- Evidence Code 980.
- Evidence Code 981.
- Evidence Code 987.
- San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Neil Shouse is an honors graduate of UC-Berkeley and Harvard Law School.
- Evidence Code 973.
- Evidence Code 912.