The Futile Fifth Step: Compulsory Disclosure of Confidential Communications among Alcoholics Anonymous Members

By Reed, Thomas J. | St. John's Law Review, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Futile Fifth Step: Compulsory Disclosure of Confidential Communications among Alcoholics Anonymous Members


Reed, Thomas J., St. John's Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Two homicide trials have threatened the integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help groups that follow the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1990, a Bangor, Maine jury convicted Ronald Boobar, Jr. of the murder of fourteen year old Becky Pelky. Boobar, an alcoholic, had attended Alcoholics Anonymous (hereinafter "AA") meetings before Pelky's November 1988 death. Shortly after her death, Boobar, while on the way to an AA meeting in the company of Joseph Sapiel, recalled being with "Becky" at the time she was killed. Boobar was subsequently arrested for the murder of Becky Pelky and was visited in jail by Daniel DesIsles, an AA member to whom he made admissions about the Pelky killing. Both DesIsles and Sapiel were called as State's witnesses and were compelled to disclose Boobar's conversations.1

In New York, Paul Cox, a White Plains carpenter and AA member, was indicted in 1993 for murdering two physicians. The indictment was based in part upon a report made by a fellow AA member to the White Plains Police Department. Six AA members were called as witnesses in Cox's June 1994 trial to testify under compulsion to confidential communications Cox made to them.2 Cox's first trial ended in June 1994 with a hung jury. He was retried in November 1994 and convicted of first degree manslaughter.3

In both cases, defense counsel moved to suppress confidential communications made by the defendants to other AA members. The courts, however, refused to find a confidential communications privilege for conversations between AA members. This Article examines the Boobar and the Cox decisions in light of the law defining compulsory disclosure of confidential communications in group therapy. Following an analysis of the current state of the law, this Article investigates the effect of the constitutional right to privacy as it applies to group therapy. Finally, this Article proposes that confidential communications between Twelve Step group members are constitutionally protected and should be shielded by a judicially-enforced privilege.

I. THE SETTING

A. State v. Boobar

In November 1988, Ronald Boobar, an alcoholic and drug addict, and Thomas Dembowsky, a friend of Boobar, picked up three teenage girls in a Bangor, Maine bar.4 One of the three was fourteen year old Rebecca "Becky" Pelky. Boobar, Dembowsky, and the three girls left the bar and cruised the town in Boobar's car. Early the next morning, Boobar dropped Dembowsky and two of the girls off at their homes. Dembowsky, the last passenger to be let off, remembered that Boobar and Pelky drove off together. The next day, Becky Pelky's mother reported her daughter missing.

On November 9, 1988, two pedestrians found Becky Pelky's body lying in the woods in Hermon, Maine.5 A medical examiner determined that she had been strangled with a nylon rope about five to ten days before her body was discovered.6 The Maine State Police learned that Boobar had been the last person who had contact with Rebecca Pelky before her death.7 Shortly after her body was discovered, the police went to Boobar's house to take him in for interrogation. During a four hour interrogation, Boobar denied killing Pelky and insisted he had dropped her off at her mother's house on the night in question.8 Nevertheless, the police detained Boobar for the grand jury; he was thereafter indicted for Pelky's murder.9

In the fall of 1988, Ronald Boobar was attempting to recover from alcohol and drug addictions.10 Nine days after Becky Pelky's body was discovered, he went to an AA meeting with Joseph Sapiel, a fellow member.11 Boobar told Sapiel that the State Police believed he murdered Becky Pelky. Boobar admitted that he had been with Becky Pelky the night she died, but claimed to have been helping her with her addiction problems and an unwanted pregnancy.12 This conversation occurred before Boobar was taken into custody; it is unclear whether this exchange took place in Sapiel's car before the meeting, or during the AA meeting itself. …

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