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Prosecuting for bigamy poses challenges

Prosecuting for bigamy poses challenges



Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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LEHI -- The city of Lehi is officially investigating the Brown family, the stars of the TLC series, "Sister Wives." But one legal analyst says it may be an uphill battle for prosecutors to get a conviction if they decide to take them to court.

Even though the Browns talk about their polygamist lifestyle on TV, it's possible that the investigation won't lead to any charges at all.

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Legal analyst Marguerite Driessen says, "At the outset, just because they're investigating them, that doesn't mean they're guilty of anything."

Convicting someone on bigamy charges may be trickier than it sounds. Driessen says that bigamy statues typically only apply when someone has legally married one person, then tries to legally marry another person.

"If whatever marriage rite is being engaged in by folks is not one recognized as marriage by law, it is not typically one that would subject someone to bigamy liability," she says.

Many polygamists have only one legally recognized marriage then use what are known as "spirit marriages" to symbolize their marriage to another spouse. These spirit marriages are not recognized by law, but there's a flip side to them. Since they're not recognized legally, attorneys typically can't prosecute people for them, either.

"These things may have meaning to you, but if they don't have legal meaning then it's difficult to see how the bigamy statute could be implicated," Driessen says. If the investigation uncovers more than one "legal" marriage, including common-law marriage, in Utah or any other state between Brown and his wives, then bigamy charges may stick.

"If they find that there were no legitimate marriage ceremonies anywhere and [in] no jurisdiction where a common-law marriage was recognized as a real marriage they may very well have to report out, ‘Sorry. [There is] no chance of a bigamy prosecution,'" Driessen says.

E-mail: pnelson@ksl.com

Paul Nelson

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