EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Private Ears Are Listening: California Judge Expresses Doubt That Confidential Marital Communications Privilege Applies To Intercepted Conversation

Corey Lyons will soon stand trial in California for the slayings of his brother and sister-in-law. And, according to Judge Brian Hill, it is likely that statements that Lyons made to his wife in a locked interview room will be admissible, despite Lyons' claim that the statements constitute confidential marital communications.

Lyons faces two counts of murder and special allegations of multiple murders and murder for financial gain. He had been embroiled in a heated lawsuit with his brother over the recently built home at 621 Aurora Ave., where the two victims were found shot to death on May 4th.

Lyons quickly became a suspect in the killings, leading to him being taken to the police station and being placed in an interview room. At some point, while he was in the interview room with his wife, she asked him if he committed the murders, and he responded with a mumbled, indecipherable answer. Then his wife told him, "Don't talk."

Authorities know these facts because they were recording what was going on in the interview room. And, while at this point, Lyons's answer is indecipherable, Detective Bryan Jensen, the lead investigator on the case, said deciphering the audio recording is still a work-in-progress, suggesting further enhancement of the tape could be accomplished. If this further enhancement works, the tape would likely be admissible according to Judge Hill, who recently stated that he â€śwould tend to think [the taped conversation] is admissible."   

Lyons' argument, meanwhile, is that the taped conversation is inadmissible pursuant to California's Confidential Marital Communications Privilege, California Evidence Code Section 980, which provides that:

Subject to Section 912 and except as otherwise provided in this article, a spouse (or his guardian or conservator when he has a guardian or conservator), whether or not a party, has a privilege during the marital relationship and afterwards to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, a communication if he claims the privilege and the communication was made in confidence between him and the other spouse while they were husband and wife. 

In order for Lyons to be able to assert this privilege, he must have (1) intended nondisclosure and (2) had a reasonable expectation of privacy. People v. Mickey, 818 P.2d 84, 102 (Cal. 1991). But according to the prosecution, the problem for Lyons is the same problem that Mickey faced. In Mickey, the Supreme Court of California found that the privilege did not apply to letters he sent to his wife while in custody awaiting punishment for capital punishment because he believed that authorities were intercepting all his mail and reading its content, meaning that he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

According to the Senior Deputy District Attorney, the same goes for Lyons: Lyons and his wife "clearly suspected that someone might be eavesdropping, as evidenced by their lowered voices, and thus did not expect any privacy." 



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