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Doctor-patient and spousal privilege in criminal proceedings


New Jersey residents may know that those facing criminal charges may prevent individuals from giving evidence against them if they are in what is referred to as a privileged relationship. The relationship between an attorney and a client is the most widely known example of this legal principle, but there are a number of others.

Like lawyers, doctors and other medical professionals work under strict ethical guidelines, and they are not permitted to divulge matters that they have been told in confidence by their patients. The law also recognizes this relationship as privileged, but only matters directly relating to the defendant's medical condition and treatment are protected during criminal proceedings. The laws in some states apply this privilege to communication with nurses and dentists as well as physicians and psychotherapists.

Another well known example of privileged communication is the discussions that take place between spouses. While spousal privilege is recognized across America, state and federal courts sometimes interpret the rules very differently. The courts in most states allow criminal defendants to refuse to allow their spouses to give testimony against them in any situation, but federal judges may allow spouses to do so if they wish to. This is because federal courts consider the quality of the marriage in question and whether or not it is worthy of protection.

The rules concerning privileged relationships are an example of how the criminal justice system in the United States is designed to give those charged with a crime the benefit of the doubt. It also demonstrates the kind or restrictions that prosecutors must work within as they attempt to prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt. These limitations, combined with heavy caseloads and intense pressure to prevail, can make life extremely challenging for prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys may urge them to consider accepting plea agreements even when their cases seem strong.

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