Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

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Law School Case Brief

Trammel v. United States - 445 U.S. 40, 100 S. Ct. 906 (1980)


Testimonial exclusionary rules and privileges must be strictly construed and accepted only to the very limited extent that permitting a refusal to testify or excluding relevant evidence has a public good transcending the normally predominant principle of utilizing all rational means for ascertaining truth. 


Prior to his trial with others on federal drug charges, petitioner Otis Trammel advised the federal district court that the Government intended to call his wife as an adverse witness and asserted a privilege to prevent her from testifying. Trammel's wife had been named in the indictment as an unindicted co-conspirator. The district court ruled that confidential communications between Trammel and his wife were privileged and therefore inadmissible in court, 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, Trammel was convicted. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the conviction, rejecting Trammel'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, barring the testimony of one spouse against the other unless both consented.


Did the lower court err in admitting the adverse testimony of Trammel's wife?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the decision. The Court noted that the Federal Rules of Evidence acknowledged the authority of the federal courts to continue the evolutionary development of testimonial privileges in criminal trials, and that since its decision in Hawkins, a number of states had abolished the spousal privilege, and the privilege had been subject to much criticism. Therefore, the Court held that it would modify the Hawkins rule so that the witness-spouse alone had a privilege to refuse to testify adversely and the witness could neither be compelled to testify nor foreclosed from testifying. The Court concluded that such a modification would further the important public interest in marital harmony without unduly burdening legitimate law enforcement needs.

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