Bil Browning

Philly gay couple wins one of the rights of marriage

Filed By Bil Browning | August 03, 2007 8:14 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: court cases, gay rights, jail, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, prison, War on Drugs

One of the areas of married life that you don't see most folks talking about only comes into play when you're dealing with criminal law. Now, I'm no lawyer - and I don't play one on the internet - so allow me to share what I do know and some of the lawyers in the crowd can fill in the details...

If you're married, you don't have to testify against your spouse; they can't force you to do so. However, a couple that has been together for 50 years - whether gay or straight - that doesn't have a piece of paper that says they're married do not have that same protection. And it happens more often than you'd ever imagine. I have a friend who's parents went to jail for dealing drugs. Even though they had been a couple since high school, they'd never gotten married for their own reasons. When the dad was busted for selling pot, mom got held as an accomplice and was told she had to testify on everything the father was doing even though she didn't want to. Why? Not married. How do you fix that? They got married. Problem solved.

But now let's look at the case of Daniel Mangini and Steven Roberts, partners for almost 20 years. They shared a home, a bank account and parenting responsibilities for a child. After the child was grown, the couple got into trouble with the law for abusing and selling meth and had to do a few months each in federal prison. They both were released on probation but then got told by the feds that they couldn't have anything to do with each other or it would violate their probation and they'd get sent back to prison.

After their release from federal prison, the U.S. Probation Office declined to allow them to live together, citing a policy that forbids felons on probation from associating with other felons unless they are blood relatives or spouses.

Under the probation department rules, they were not permitted to speak, meet or e-mail during their five-year period of supervised release.

Can you imagine not being able to see your partner of 20 years for any reason whatsoever? Having to move out of your home and split up your belongings not because you wanted to end your relationship, but because the government does?

Thankfully, a Philly judge ruled in their favor after a lengthy process during which the two partners couldn't communicate.

"Defendants were in every way a family," Katz wrote in a 10-page opinion issued Tuesday. "The Due Process Clause [of the Constitution] protects highly personal relationships of deep attachment and commitment."

And does it make me a bad person to sit here and think, "Well, what will it take for me to do to get some form of recognition of my relationship from the government? Do I have to sell meth? And why was this such a problem to fix to start with? What genius couldn't automatically see the problems inherent in this issue?"

This was a big issue because it dealt with two sacred cows. Do gay couples count as "real couples?" Strike 1. Strike 2 comes when you factor in the "War on Drugs." The government wants to try and paint drug dealers as horrible, hardened criminals just as bad as murders and rapists. But they're not. Your usual small time pot dealer isn't a hardened criminal. And yet we have untold thousands of people in jail or prison for drug offenses - and most of them are people of color. So isn't this really about striking down two people with the weight of "the man?" Wouldn't getting them treatment have been a much cheaper, compassionate and humane event than arresting them, locking them up, forcing them to end their relationship, getting them out of addiction without support from their family, spawning lawsuits, etc? Or do we continue to trample on the gays, the trans folk and the people of color with a seriously flawed system of punishment and arbitrary laws?

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"When the dad was busted for selling pot, mom got held as an accomplice and was told she had to testify on everything the father was doing even though she didn't want to. Why? Not married. How do you fix that? They got married. Problem solved."

Check your sources -- spousal privilege only applies to private communications during the marriage. A spouse most certainly can be compelled to testify about conversations before they were married.

And acts between spouses are not privileged at all. Only communications.