The Fifth Amendment and the Adverse Inference
September 9, 2019 § 3 Comments
Can a chancellor grant a divorce solely on the adverse inference created when a witness invokes the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution?
That was one of the questions raised in Martha Bradshaw’s appeal from a chancellor’s adjudication that she was guilty of adultery and granting a divorce to her husband, Loyd.
To refresh your recollection as to that adverse inference, here is a quote from ¶22 of the COA’s August 13, 2019, decision in Bradshaw v. Bradshaw, penned by Judge Greenlee:
Concerning a witness’s “taking the Fifth” in civil cases, the trier of fact may draw an adverse inference from a defendant’s refusal to testify. Gibson v. Wright, 870 So. 2d 1250, 1260 (¶42) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).
Let’s say the witness was asked, “have you committed adultery during the marriage?” and the witness pleads the Fifth, at that point the court may infer that the witness’s answer would have been adverse to his or her interest.
So, when a witness claims the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination in a divorce case, is that inference enough to satisfy the burden of proof? Judge Greenlee says:
However, we have failed to find a case that allows a divorce to be granted based solely on that inference.
In a specially concurring opinion, Judge McCarty raises the question whether in Mississippi it is even appropriate to invoke the Fifth on the basis that answering the question could subject one to prosecution for adulterous conduct. At footnote 7 he observes:
It is unlawful cohabitation conjoined with more than a single act of adultery that is a crime—a misdemeanor. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-29-1 (Rev. 2014); see Miss. Dep’t of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks v. Bradshaw, 196 So. 3d 1075, 1085 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (holding that there is no general crime of adultery, but that the Code prohibits cohabitation when there is a “habitual . . . laying together”).
Then, at footnote 8, he points out:
There have been prosecutions for adultery, but we do not see reported cases on it lately. See Ratcliff v. State, 234 Miss. 724, 728, 107 So. 2d 728, 729 (1958) (examining the law and the corollary prohibition on marriage between blacks and whites, which unlike the cohabitation crime, was a felony punishable with 10 years); Housley v. State, 198 Miss. 837, 839, 23 So. 2d 749, 749 (1945) (affirming dual convictions for unlawful cohabitation). Although it is easy to see the objection as gamesmanship, we have reminded the Bar not too long ago “that cohabitation between persons not married to each other is against the law in Mississippi,” and while “this law is frequently broken has been recognized by the supreme court,” it remains on the books as a crime. Sullivan v. Stringer, 736 So. 2d 514, 516-17 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). We ruled there that “[c]ommission of crimes by a custodial parent, even if they are only about sex, is properly the concern of a chancellor,” although it should be added that the weight accorded to it is left to the trial court. Id.
He refers to the objection based on possible prosecution for adultery as “incorrect” in footnote 9:
The same incorrect objection was lodged in McDonald v. McDonald, 69 So. 3d 61, 66 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). We noted in passing that we would “decline to address the question of whether [the husband] could have successfully been prosecuted for adultery . . . . ” Id. at 66 n.2.