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Adultery

Enforcement Of Statutes

Although the District of Columbia and approximately half of the states continue to have laws on the books criminalizing adultery, these laws are rarely invoked. Traditionally, states advanced three goals in support of their adultery laws: (1) the prevention of disease and illegitimate children; (2) the preservation of the institution of marriage; and (3) the safeguarding of general community morals.

Courts in the jurisdictions still prohibiting adultery have openly questioned whether adultery laws in fact serve these goals. The Florida Supreme Court, for example, found that adultery statutes bear no rational, much less compelling, relationship to disease prevention. The court said that the risk of contracting disease is already a greater deterrent to extra-marital sex than criminal punishment. The court also noted that the fear of prosecution prevents infected people from voluntarily seeking treatment. Purvis v. State, 377 So. 2d 674, 677 (Fla. 1979).

At the same time, many prosecutors began to realize that once the act of adultery is committed, the harm to the marriage is for the most part complete, especially if the infidelity is disclosed or discovered. In other words, after a spouse has been unfaithful, there is little the judicial system can offer to undo the act and reverse the damage. Thus, prosecutors have increasingly questioned whether prosecuting the adulterer will do much if anything to preserve the marriage.

Finally, judges, prosecutors, and other state officials have increasingly realized that prosecutions for adultery have had little practical effect in "safeguarding the community morals." Opinion polls consistently show that significant numbers of spouses admit to cheating on their partners during marriage. In light of the growing evidence that adultery laws no longer serve their three underlying purposes, most state prosecutors have made a conscious decision against wasting their scarce resources on prosecuting alleged adulterers.

In states that still have adultery laws on the books, but have failed to prosecute anyone under them recently, courts have ruled that the mere lack of prosecution under the adultery statute does not result in that statute becoming invalid or judicially unenforceable. Courts have also rejected the argument that prosecutions for adultery are inconsistent with the right to privacy guaranteed by state and federal constitutions. Commonwealth v. Stowell, 389 Mass 171, 449 NE2d 357 (Mass 1983).

Additional topics

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