Supreme Court to hear arguments on lie detectors
November 3, 1997
Web posted at: 10:35 a.m. EST (1535 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday on whether to allow results of lie detector tests to be admitted as evidence in court. Currently, most defendants cannot introduce such results in a trial.
A lie detector, or polygraph, test is the same type that British au pair Louise Woodward, convicted last week of murdering an infant in her charge, passed, according to her lawyers. It was not permitted as evidence in her trial.
And it is the same type that a former airman says he passed, and wants to use as he challenges his conviction on a drug charge.
Airman wanted to use test
Edward G. Scheffer was court-martialed at March Air Force Base in California in 1992 on charges he took methamphetamine. While a urine test showed the drug in his system, his lie detector test showed he had been truthful when he said he hadn't taken the drug.
He asked to use the lie detector results in trial, but his request was denied. A military rule signed by President George Bush in 1991 forbids any reference to polygraph tests in criminal trials.
Attorneys for Scheffer, whose case is now before the Supreme Court, say that a military court's refusal to let him use such test results violated his Sixth Amendment right to present relevant evidence in his defense.
"Polygraphs have been shown to be sufficiently reliable on the basis of current research and real life experience," Scheffer's attorneys said in court briefs. Lie detector evidence "does not mislead or confuse juries, nor usurp their role," they said.
An Armed Forces appeals court ruled in Scheffer's favor, deciding that the test should not automatically be ruled out. The government now wants the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling on the grounds that other federal and state courts have upheld barring use of lie detector results in criminal trials.
Neither the airman nor the Air Force would comment prior to the Supreme Court arguments.
Polygraph's inclusion could change courtrooms
A constitutional ruling allowing polygraph tests could change a lot of courtrooms.
According to Charles Hobson of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, "If the defendant actually wins in this case, then other types of evidence will also be put into question, for instance privileges, like press shield laws, rape shield laws, possibly even the clergy-penitent privilege."
Polygraph supporters claim the tests are 80 to 90 percent accurate. Reliability is the core issue.
"There's been more of a movement, I guess in the last few years towards admissibility, because of the new digital process and the computerization of polygraphs," said polygraph expert Richard Rackleff.
But Hobson says the tests aren't as straightforward as they might appear. "The risk is that the polygraph will look like a truth machine, like a computer -- you input certain data and you come out with an answer," he said.
Government major user
While the U.S. government is arguing the case against polygraphs in court, it is the government which is one of the test's biggest users. Recently an FBI expert testified to Congress that the government should drop the process, at least for hiring.
"The diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea leaf reading," said FBI polygraph expert Drew Richardson.
The FBI expert argues the technology may have improved over the years, but the machine can still be beaten.
Meanwhile, court watchers will have to read the tea leaves on this case until next spring, when the justices rule whether the admissibility of polygraphs is a defendant's constitutional right.
Senior Washington Correspondent Charles Bierbauer contributed to this report.