Bill would prevent sponsor testimony in civil cases for addicts

OLYMPIA — Several relationships — such as that of doctor and patient, attorney and client, priest and penitent — have legal protections that prevent information shared in such confidences from being used against them in court. A bill in Washington state would add a new testimonial privilege to that list for noncriminal cases: the relationship between sponsor and an addict in recovery.

Senate Bill 6498, which would give legal protection to communications between a person in an alcohol or drug recovery program and their sponsor, passed the Senate on a unanimous vote earlier this month. The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure Friday, and it now and awaits a vote by the full House.

Under the bill, a person “who acts as a sponsor providing guidance, emotional support, and counseling in an individualized manner” to someone in a recovery program can’t testify in a civil action or proceeding about anything said in their conversations, unless the privilege is waived by the person in recovery or on account of their death.

Jon Griffin, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he’s not aware of any other state that offers such a privilege, and that no other states to date have introduced similar legislation.

The measure has been pushed by King County Councilman Reagan Dunn, a recovering alcoholic who says such a bill is needed so people in recovery don’t have their words used against them in civil lawsuits or divorce proceedings.

Dunn said he faced such a possibility, when someone sought information from his sponsor during a legal proceeding against him. Ultimately, the subpoena wasn’t pursued, but he said it made him realize the harm that could come from requiring a sponsor to testify.

“It’s an incredibly important relationship and it’s an incredibly sensitive relationship,” he said, comparing it to a confession a person would give a priest. “It’s kind of a one-stop shop, if an attorney is successful, to get at all of the things a person regrets in their life. It has a chilling effect on those seeking recovery.”

Republican Sen. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley was the lone no vote in the House committee vote. A spokesman for Shea said that he voted no because he still had some questions about the bill and wanted to investigate any possible legal implications.

If the measure passes, subpoenas against sponsors might still be sought, but if a testimonial privilege exists, the onus will be on the attorney seeking that information to make the argument to the court on why it should be overridden, said Katherine Kent, a Seattle attorney who specializes in family law.

Kent said she doesn’t believe that such a privilege would have a big impact on family law cases. She noted often, there’s already a presumption the information is sensitive and is rarely sought.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s going to interfere with civil proceedings in any way,” she said. “If it helps the person to feel protected on the road to recovery, I think that’s a good thing.”

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