Marital Privilege Law Sends Wrong Message

The Marital Privilege law is detrimental to domestic violence victims as well as the entire criminal justice system, regardless of whether it is employed once or innumerable times. The privilege increases victims' vulnerability and can be physically...


Victims of domestic violence often suffer in silence long before the nature of their victimization is ever exposed. Many of them will endure battering from their romantic partners or spouses thinking that the resultant violence is only the result of the abuser's bad day or mood and that, in time, the situation will improve. The reality is that it never does; it only gets worse. Though the majority of victims are female, there are male victims who reluctantly acknowledge their abuse due to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation.

The continuous abuse of victims is perpetuated by two integral components that encompass domestic violence--power and control. The abuser maintains power over the victim by controlling and limiting potential options the victim may have to escape the situation. Domestic violence victims are fragile in many ways because they have endured abuse for so long that their self-esteem has significantly diminished, and they have little or no self-confidence in being able to take control of their own lives. As a consequence, victims feel they have few alternatives other than to remain in the situation and endure the abuse though, over time, it has a profound impact.

In many instances, the abuse is not reported to law enforcement authorities until it reaches an extreme point in which the victim may be in real fear for personal safety, significantly injured, or if witnesses hear or see the abuse taking place and call for emergency assistance. When police respond and once the abuser is arrested, the process is set in motion for the possibility of criminal prosecution.

Some states are very proactive in the prosecution of domestic violence cases particularly when the evidence is strong and police-based reporting exists. There are states, however, that have a law known as Spousal or Marital Privilege, in which a legally married victim who is abused by a spouse has a legal option to choose not to testify against the spousal abuser. Consequently, the case is dropped. In jurisdictions where this law exists, the number of times this option can be used varies. For example, in Washington, D.C., the privilege can be exercised without limitation, whereas in the state of Maryland the option can be used only once.

The Marital Privilege law is detrimental to domestic violence victims as well as the entire criminal justice system, regardless of whether it is employed once or innumerable times. The privilege increases victims' vulnerability and can be physically and emotionally damaging. Though victims are asked, under oath, if they have been coerced or influenced to utilize this privilege, they usually respond in the negative. They are often fearful of repercussions by the abuser who has commonly threatened them with more severe consequences of abuse or harm if they do not express willingness to drop the charges.

Marital or Spousal Privilege does not change the abusive situation. To the contrary, use of the Marital Privilege provision sends the wrong message to the abuser, the victim, and the community at large. When this privilege is exercised, the abuser is not held accountable and, as a result, has no consequences for the criminal behavior that has transpired. The abuser is afforded no intervention to deal with potential anger issues or possible alcohol or drug abuse that could be contributing to the situation. The victim receives no further support or extended victim assistance and, therefore, all parties involved return to the same familial situation involving the cycle of violence. Consequently, the community assumes that domestic violence is not taken seriously and that abuse is tolerated.

This content continues onto the next page...
  • Enhance your experience.

    Thank you for your regular readership of and visits to Officer.com. To continue viewing content on this site, please take a few moments to fill out the form below and register on this website.

    Registration is required to help ensure your access to featured content, and to maintain control of access to content that may be sensitive in nature to law enforcement.