Teacher Marries Student to Invoke Spousal Privilege

In a shining example of legally permissible, yet terrible decisions, a 42-year-old former teacher married her 17-year-old student in an attempt to short-circuit her criminal prosecution.

Associated Press reports that the teacher divorced her husband and married the student six days later (with his mother’s signed permission because he is a minor).  The teacher was arrested in 2009 and charged with statutory rape, sexual offense with a student, and taking indecent liberties with a student under North Carolina state law.

School Closed (woodnick)

Arizona sees more than its fair share of teacher misconduct allegations – the nightly news often scoops stories of a Deer Valley coach or an Awhatukee substitute teacher becoming inappropriately involved with minors (these being illustrative hypotheticals and not comments on those areas, of course).  What is unique about the North Carolina case, however, is that the former teacher eventually married her student and pleaded guilty to “resisting a public officer,” instead of the felony sex charges.

Your first thought may be that the teacher and student were not married in 2009, so why did the prosecutor drop the felony charges?  Common law evidence rules, since adopted in statute by most states, typically include a so-called “spousal privilege” which prevents the state from compelling someone to testify against their spouse in a criminal case.

The reasoning for the spousal privilege varies, but it is centered primarily on protecting marriages from the tension which would come from one spouse being forced to testify against the other.  The privilege is held by the accused spouse, but it can be invoked by either: an unwilling spouse can refuse to testify by invoking the privilege, and the accused can block a willing spouse from testifying against them by doing the same.

In cases of sexual misconduct, it is often nearly impossible to find physical evidence that any wrongdoing has occurred.  The testimony of the victim is critically important to the success of trying these kinds of cases, so much so that the prosecutor in North Carolina allowed the teacher to plea down to a misdemeanor.

Proposal (woodnick)

Now, before you start to believe that you can just marry the key witness in your case to stop them from testifying: don’t.  This case is a classic example of the oft-forgotten gap between what you “can” do and what you “should” do.  Clients who watch too many crime shows on television and attorneys whose zealous representation carries them to the fringes of the rules of professional conduct may be tempted to try every angle, file every possible motion, and any other imaginable tactic to secure a victory in court.

There is a difference, however, between a “victory” and a favorable outcome, which requires finesse and a careful analysis of the potential benefits and detriments of legal action.  In the case of the teacher-turned-molester-turned-cradle robber, any chance that she might have had at absolution and redemption is shattered.  With her name plastered all over the Internet and national news, any chance that she may have had at a normal life is probably gone.  At the age of 42, she could have had many working years ahead of her, but she will now carry a bizarre reputation and is highly unlikely to teach again.