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The Physician Patient Privilege: Admissions To Treating Psychiatrist Inadmissible At Trial.


unnamed-1People v. Rivera

2015 NY Slip Op 03764

Decided May 5, 2015

New York Court of Appeals

The Physician Patient Privilege: Admissions To Treating Psychiatrist Inadmissible At Trial.

Issue: Whether the admission of a criminal act to a treating psychiatrist was admissible in evidence at trial.

Holding: The New York Court of Appeals held that the admission of a criminal act, in this case the sexual abuse of an 11 year old, was inadmissible in evidence and that it was error for the trial court to allow such an admission into evidence.

Summary: the defendant, while seeking treatment from a psychiatrist, admitted to sexually abusing an 11-year old relative. Th psychiatrist notified the Administration for Children’s Services about the admission. At the criminal trial the judge permitted the psychiatrist to testify that the defendant made the admission. The defendant was convicted at trial, the Appellate Division unanimously reversed and remanded for a new trial. The People sought leave to appeal to the NY Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal on the issue of whether the trial court erred in allowing the testimony of the psychiatrist concerning the defendant’s admission that he abused to child and whether that testimony violated the physician-patient privilege.

empire-state-building-19109_640Legal Analysis:

CPLR 4504 (a) provides, as relevant to this appeal, that “[u]nless the patient waives the privilege, a person authorized to practice medicine . . . shall not be allowed to disclose any information which he [or she] acquired in attending a patient in a professional capacity, and which was necessary to enable him [or her] to act in that capacity.

Regardless of whether a physician is required or permitted by law to report instances of abuse or threatened future harm to authorities, which may involve the?disclosure of confidential information, it does not follow that such disclosure?necessarily constitutes an abrogation of the evidentiary privilege a criminal defendant enjoys under CPLR 4504 (a). Whereas confidentiality is an ethical requirement of physicians “that is essential to psychiatric treatment . . . and is based in part on the special nature of psychiatric therapy as well as on the traditional ethical relationship between physician and patient.

We have acknowledged that although the physician-patient privilege is in derogation of the common law, it should be afforded a “broad and liberal construction to carry out its policy” of encouraging full disclosure by patients so that they may secure treatment (MatterofGrandJuryInvestigationofOnondagaCounty, 59 NY2d at 134.

lower-manhattanThe Legislature has not created an express exception permitting a psychiatrist to testify concerning an admission made by a criminal defendant during the course of a professional relationship where the admission was made for purposes of diagnosis and treatment. Even if a patient is cognizant of his psychiatrist’s reporting obligations under child protection statutes, that does not mean that he should have any expectation that?statements made during treatment will be used against him in a criminal matter.

The Legislature has crafted exceptions to the privilege in child protection proceedings in order to advance the important interest in protecting the welfare of children.

The testimony by defendant’s psychiatrist that defendant admitted to the abuse was not harmless. Apart from the victim’s testimony, there was no eyewitness evidence to the abuse, and there was little, if any, physical evidence establishing it. Moreover, the prosecutor relied on the psychiatrist’s testimony in arguing for defendant’s guilt and, during deliberations, the jury made one request, namely, it asked for the psychiatrist’s response when she was asked if defendant admitted to her that he sexually molested the child.


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