Trammel v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Petitioner was convicted of importing heroin into the United States and conspiracy to import, based upon the testimony of his wife. Petitioner appealed, claiming that the admission of the adverse testimony of his wife, over his objection, contravened prior precedent and therefore constituted reversible error.

Facts of the case

Otis Trammel, Jr. was indicted on federal drug charges. Before his trial, he advised the court that the Government would call his wife as a witness against him. The indictment named Mrs. Trammel as an unindicted co-conspirator and the Government granted her immunity in exchange for her testimony. Otis moved to assert a privilege against adverse spousal testimony to prevent her from testifying against him. The district court denied the motion, and allowed Mrs. Trammel to testify to any act she observed during the marriage and any communication made in the presence of a third party. Only confidential communications between Mr. and Mrs. Trammel remained privileged and inadmissible. Otis was tried and convicted. On appeal, Otis argued that the district court’s ruling violated Hawkins v. United States where the U.S. Supreme Court held that one spouse may not testify against the other unless both consent. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed, holding that the Hawkins did not prevent voluntary testimony of a spouse who appears as an unindicted co-conspirator under grant of immunity.


May an accused invoke the privilege against adverse spousal testimony so as to exclude the voluntary testimony of his wife?


“The existing rule should be modified so that the witness-spouse alone has a privilege to refuse to testify adversely

  • the witness may be neither compelled to testify nor foreclosed from testifying.
    The privilege claimed by petitioner has ancient roots. It sprang from two canons of medieval jurisprudence: the rule that an accused was not permitted to testify in his own behalf because of his interest in the proceeding
  • second, the concept that husband wife were one, and that since the woman had no recognized separate legal existence, the husband was that one. The rule evolved into one of privilege, rather than one of absolute disqualification.”


    “The Court affirmed. The Court found that the spousal testimonial privilege rule should be similar to other privileges. Spouses are not barred from testifying if they chose to do so. However, they cannot be compelled to do so. 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

  • 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.”
    • Case Brief: 1980
    • Petitioner: Otis Trammel, Jr.
    • Respondent: United States
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 445 US 40 (1980)
    Argued: Oct 29 – 30, 1979
    Decided: Feb 27, 1980