Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Parent-Child Testimony Privilege
In Massachusetts evidence law, there are limits on who may give testimony in various civil and criminal proceedings. One set of limitations is found in a Massachusetts statute that applies to the testimony of a parent or minor child against another in a criminal, delinquency, and youthful offender proceedings where the victim is not a family member and does not reside in the household. But can a parent testify against their own child? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Eli Vigiani, which asks the question of whether under Massachusetts law, a parent is disqualified from being called to testify in their child’s defense at an evidentiary hearing for a motion to suppress.
This case concludes that while Massachusetts law prevents the prosecution from calling in the child’s parents to testify against the child, it does allow for the child to call in their parents as a witness for their defense, and in turn, the state is permitted to cross-examine the parents.
What happened in the Eli Vigiani case?
A sixteen-year-old juvenile, in this case, was allegedly involved in a shooting incident. The juvenile and his mother went to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police headquarters to be questioned. Both were informed of the juvenile Miranda rights. The police did not want the mother present with the juvenile during his interview with police. The mother claims that a detective spoke privately wither her and encouraged her to allow her son to speak with the officers privately and promised that if he did, he would be permitted to leave.
The mother allowed her son to speak with the police. During the conversation, the sixteen-year-old made some incriminating statements and was indicted on the charge of carrying a firearm without a license.
Before the trial, the juvenile moved to suppress all his statements at the MBTA headquarters. The juvenile sought to call his mother to testify in his defense, which the state moved to prohibit.
The lower court judge allowed the mother to testify and the state and the state appealed.
In order to determine the meaning of a statute, the courts will turn to the legislative intent of the statute. In the witness-spouse exception, the privilege belongs to the testifying spouse to decide whether or not to testify. The main legislative intent of this statute was to ensure that spousal relationships are protected. Similarly, the parent-child testimony statute is aimed at the goal of protecting the parent-child relationship.
Forcing parents in possession of favorable evidence of their child to keep silent as their child is subjected to criminal prosecution is absurd. Thus, the court concluded that in order to achieve the goal of the legislature would prevent the state from requiring parents to testify against their child. However, the state is still permitted to cross-examine the parent, as this is an uncomfortable but necessary part of our adversarial court system.
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