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Judge: Woman doesn't have to testify against same-sex spouse

Williamsport woman acquitted of assault

June 23, 2011|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

A Washington County Circuit Court judge Thursday acquitted a Williamsport woman of assault after ruling that her same-sex spouse could invoke her privilege not to testify against the defendant.

Judge Donald E. Beachley ruled that, under the "principle of comity," or legal reciprocity between states, Maryland generally recognizes a marriage as valid as long as it was valid in the jurisdiction in which it took place.

While Maryland does not allow same-sex couples to marry, it can recognize same-sex marriages performed outside its borders, in this case, Washington, D.C.

Deborah Snowden, 50, of Williamsport, was charged in December 2010 with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment for allegedly threatening Sha'rron Snowden with a knife. The couple married in Washington, where same-sex marriages are legal, in August 2010.

Deborah Snowden's trial on the assault charge began in April. But when she was called to the stand, Sha'rron Snowden invoked her spousal privilege not to testify.

Beachley suspended the trial at that time to allow Deborah Snowden's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Carl Somerlock, and the Washington County State's Attorney's Office to prepare arguments over whether the privilege accorded to heterosexual married couples also extends to same-sex spouses.

It was a case that drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, which submitted a joint legal brief asserting that the right not to testify against one's spouse should apply equally to same-sex couples who were legally married outside the state.

Maryland has extended many rights to same-sex couples, such as adoption, health insurance benefits for partners of state employees and anti-discrimination laws, Beachley said. The Maryland General Assembly has also not specifically prohibited the recognition of same-sex couples from other jurisdictions, the judge said.

An exception to recognizing a marriage from another jurisdiction would be if the union were deemed "repugnant to public policy," a conclusion Beachley said would be unlikely for a higher state court to support considering Maryland's record of granting rights to homosexual couples.

The right to invoke the marital privilege was created by statute, Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael argued before Beachley. The statute has several exceptions, such as for cases involving child abuse, where the spouse cannot invoke the privilege, he said.

"It's a legislative matter. If they want to clarify it, they can clarify it," Michael said.

The spousal privilege statue and the state law that only marriages between a man and a woman are valid in Maryland have not been changed to include same-sex couples, he said.

Somerlock cited Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of interracial couples to marry, as being similar to the Snowden case.

"Marriage is one of the basic human rights of man," Somerlock said. The issue was not that the police or the prosecution did anything wrong, but equal protection under the law, he said.

"The only claim we've made is that to not allow them the same privileges of other traditional marriages denies them the rights they seek when they get married," Somerlock said after the hearing.

"In Maryland, we operate under the default marriage recognition rule," said Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal's director of constitutional litigation, arguing on behalf of Sha'rron Snowden. Maryland law does not specifically state it does not recognize same-sex marriages from other states, she said.

Sha'rron Snowden was not present during the hearing, but following Beachley's decision, she was called in to resume the trial against Deborah Snowden. She took the stand and again invoked her spousal privilege not to testify, after which Beachley granted a defense motion for acquittal.

The couple left the courthouse hand-in-hand, declining to answer questions from reporters.

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