When a person is being criminally charged in California, the prosecution may call a number of different witnesses to testify against the defendant. However, certain people who hold privileged relationships with the defendant are not obligated to testify against the defendant if they are called to do so. Some of the people with privileged relationships include the defendant's physician, psychotherapist, social worker and spouse.
Though laws about spousal immunity vary from state to state, husbands and wives are not obligated to testify against their spouses. Federal courts and some state courts permit a husband or wife to testify against their spouse if they decide that they want to testify. Some state courts give the criminal defendant the right to prevent testimony from being heard by their spouse, even if the spouse wishes to testify against them.
Spousal immunity only lasts as long as the marriage, and a divorced person may testify against their ex-spouse in court. However, the confidential marital communications privilege bars an ex-spouse from sharing information with the court that was gleaned from discussions they had with the defendant during their marriage. Any communications that an ex-spouse has with the defendant after the marriage ends are not protected by the confidential marital communications privilege.
A person who is facing criminal charges may want to talk to an attorney about privileged relationships and communications. If the prosecution is attempting to compel certain types of witness to testify against the defendant and a privilege exists, a criminal defense attorney's client may invoke the right to prevent the testimony from being heard.