BAN ON USE OF POLYGRAPH EVIDENCE DOES NOT AMOUNT TO ABRIDGEMENT OF MILITARY DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO PRESENT A DEFENSE
CRS Report for Congress
Ban on Use of Polygraph Evidence Does Not
Amount to Abridgement of Military
Defendant’s Right to Present a Defense
Paul S. Wallace, Jr.
Specialist in American Public Law
American Law Division
Military Rule of Evidence 707 excludes polygraph evidence in military trials. The
Supreme Court on March 31,1998, upheld the ban, holding that it did not violate the
Sixth Amendment rights of defendants. The Court also said that the military ban on the
use of such evidence “...does not unconstitutionally abridge the right to present a
In March of 1992, the appellant in United States v. Scheffer1, began working as an
informant for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). On April 7, 1992, at
the request of OSI, the appellant voluntarily provided a urine sample. Periodic urinalyses
are normal procedure for volunteer informants.
On April 10th, OSI asked appellant to submit to a polygraph examination. The OSI
polygraph examiner asked the appellant three questions: (1) had he ever used drugs while
in the Air Force; (2) had he ever lied in any of the drug information he gave to OSI; and
(3) had he told anyone other than his parents that he was assisting OSI? The appellant
answered “No” to each question. The polygraph examiner concluded that “no deception”
The appellant’s urinalysis tested positive for methamphetamine. At the informant's
trial, the appellant asked the military judge for an opportunity to lay a foundation for the
favorable polygraph evidence. The military judge denied the request stating among other
things that “the polygraph is not a process that has sufficient scientific acceptability to
166 U.S.L.W. 4235 (U.S. April 7, 1998).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
be relevant.” The appellant asserted that Military Rules of Evidence, Rule 707 violated
his Sixth Amendment2 right to present a defense because it compelled the military judge
to exclude relevant, material, and favorable evidence offered by him. He argued that he
was constitutionally entitled to be given an opportunity to rebut the attack on his
credibility as a witness by laying a foundation for favorable polygraph evidence. The
Government alleged that Rule 707 does not impermissibly infringe on the Sixth
Amendment; it argued that the Rule merely codifies all the evidentiary prohibitions
against polygraph evidence and that, even without Rule 707, polygraph evidence would
never be admissible. The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces set aside
the decision of the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals which ruled in
favor of the Government. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that the
appellant should be provided an opportunity to lay a foundation for admission of the
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in United States v. Sheffer3, on
May 19, 1997. One of the two issues4 presented on appeal to the Court was whether
Military Rules of Evidence, Rule 707 violates the Sixth Amendment if it interferes with
the accused’s right to present testimony that is relevant and material to his defense?
Prior to the Court's decision, the scientific community was extremely polarized
regarding the reliability of polygraph techniques. It would appear that the Sheffer
decision will not contribute to the reputation of the reliability of these techniques
inasmuch as the Court noted that its accuracy rate has been described as being a "...`little
better than could be obtained by the toss of a coin,' that is, 50 percent."5
Comments Regarding the Ban on Use of Polygraph
Evidence Based Upon Selected Cases
It appears as if a substantial number of the federal circuits do not have a per se
prohibition against polygraph evidence. Instead, they rely on the trial judge to apply a
Daubert analysis.6 The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered its decision on remand
2The Sixth Amendment grants an accused “the right to call `witnesses in his favor’.” Rock
v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 52 (1987); Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14, 23 (1967) (an accused
right to present testimony that is relevant and material may not be denied arbitrarily).
3117 S. Ct. 1817 (1997).
4The other issue--not addressed by the Court-- is: whether the President complied with
Article 36(a), UCMJ, 10 USC § 836(a) when he promulgated Military Rules of Evidence, Rule
5 Sheffer, 66 U.S.L.W. at 4237.
6See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. 509 U.S. 579 (1993), on remand 43
F.3d 1311 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied 116 S. Ct. 189 (1995).
While a definitive checklist or test to determine scientific reliability was not provided in
Daubert, the following four factors were presented as having been considered: (1) is the
technique testable? “Scientific methodology today is based on generating hypotheses and testing
them to see if they can be falsified; indeed, this methodology is what distinguishes science from
in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.7, interpreting the Supreme Court’s
ruling in Daubert. The court first noted in performing their “gatekeeping role,” judges:
must satisfy themselves that scientific evidence meets a certain standard of
reliability before it is admitted. This means that the expert’s bald assurance of
validity is not enough. Rather the party presenting the expert must show that
the expert’s findings are based on sound science, and this will require some
objective, independent validation of the expert’s methodology8
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also considered three significant factors for
determining whether the expert’s testimony is admissible. The first factor “is whether the
experts are proposing to testify about matters growing naturally and directly out of
research they have conducted independent of the litigation, or whether they have
developed their opinions expressly for purposes of testifying.”9 Second, if the expert is
not testifying based upon research independent of the litigation, the party proffering it
must come forward with other objective, verifiable evidence that the testimony is based
on `scientifically valid principles.’”10 One way of showing this, as suggested by the
Court, “is by proof that the research and analysis supporting the proffered conclusion have
other fields of human inquiry.” 509 U.S. at 593 ; (2) has the theory or technique been subjected
to peer review and publication? “The fact of publication (or lack thereof) in a peer-reviewed
journal ... will be relevant, though not dispositive, consideration in assessing the scientific
validity of a particular technique or methodology on which an opinion is premised.” Id. at 594;
(3) in the case of scientific techniques, what is the known or potential error rate, and are there
standards controlling the technique’s operation? Id. (4) “Finally, `general acceptance’ can yet
have a bearing on the inquiry. ... Widespread acceptance can be an important factor in ruling
particular evidence admissible,” and a technique that is known but not widely recognized “may
properly be viewed with skepticism.” Id. See also United States v. Pulido, 69 F.3d 192, 205 (7th
Cir. 1995) (no per se rule against admissibility of polygraph evidence); United States v. Posado,
57 F.3d 428, 436 (5th Cir. 1995) (reversing per se exclusion of polygraph evidence); United
States v. Piccinonna, 885 F.2d 1529, 1535 (11th Cir. 1989) (holding that polygraph evidence not
admissible per se); Anderson v. United States, 788 F.2d 517, 519 n. 1 (8th Cir. 1986) (polygraph
evidence admissible by stipulation); United States v. A. & S. Council Oil Co., 947 F.2d 1128,
1134 n. 4 (4th Cir. 1991) (holding that polygraph evidence not admissible in 4th Circuit but
recognizing that “[c]ircuits that have not yet permitted evidence of polygraph results for any
purpose are now the decided minority”); but see United States v. Scarborough, 43 F.3d 1021,
820 F.2d 1232, 1241 (10th Cir. 1987) (polygraph evidence “not admissible to show” that witness
“is truthful”); United States v. Skeens, 494 F.2d 1050, 1053 (D.C. Cir. 1974) (adhering to Frye
and holding polygraph evidence inadmissible); Dowd v. Calabrese, 585 F. Supp. 430 (D.D.C.
743 F.3d 1311 (9th Cir. 1995) (decision enhanced the role of judges as evidentiary
“gatekeepers”, trusting them and jurors to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence).
8Id. at 1316.
10Id. at 1318.
been subjected to normal scientific scrutiny through peer review and publication.”11 A
third factor, where there is no evidence that the expert’s proffered testimony grows out
of research conducted independent of litigation, or that the expert’s research has been
subjected to peer review, is testimony of other experts.12 The Court explained that for
other expert testimony to be sufficient:
[T]he experts must explain precisely how they went about reaching their
conclusions and point to some objective source—a learned treatise, the policy
statement of a professional association, a published article in a reputable
scientific journal or the like—to show that they have followed the scientific
method, as it is practiced by (at least) a recognized minority of scientists in their
The Eleventh Circuit has recognized that “[s]ince the Frye14 decision, tremendous
advances have been made in polygraph instrumentation and technique.”15 However, the
court said that the effect of the Military Rule Of Evidence, Rule 707 “is to freeze the law
regarding polygraph examinations without regard for scientific advances.”16 Thus, the
effect of the rule would appear to limit the use of opinion or reputation evidence to
establish the credibility of the appellant and “we believe that the truth-seeking function
is best served by keeping the door open to scientific advances.”17 With respect to the
appellant’s case, the court said:
we... cannot determine `whether polygraph technique can be said to have made
sufficient technological advance in the seventy years since Frye to constitute
the type of scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge envisioned by
While the Court of Appeals in Sheffer did not decide whether polygraph
examinations are scientifically valid nor did they decide that they will always assist the
trier of fact in this or any other case; it merely sought to remove the obstacle of the per
se rule against its admissibility.
14United States v. Frye, 293 Fed. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923) (polygraph evidence was held to
be inadmissible because it was unreliable; the 1993 Daubert decision modified the 1923 Frye
15United States v. Piccinonna, 885 F.2d at 1532; see also United States v. Crumby, 895 F.
Supp. 1354 (D. Ariz. 1995).
16Scheffer, 44 M.J. 442, 446 (1996).
The Supreme Court, ruling 8-1, in the Scheffer case said “... there is simply no
consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable.”19 Without rejecting unqualifiedly the
argument that the defendants may have a constitutional right to have polygraph evidence
admitted at trial, the Court apparently is willing to allow many state and federal courts to
continue banning such evidence.20 The Court noted that various courts “... may
reasonably reach differing conclusions as to whether polygraph evidence should be
admitted.”21 The justices may have been influenced by the fact that “[t]o this day, the
scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph
techniques.”22 While holding that the military rule does not violate the Constitution,23
the Supreme Court noted that most state courts ban polygraph evidence. It was also
noted that some federal courts have recently dropped the ban on such evidence thereby
leaving the decision to the trial judges.24 Although Rule 707 applies to the military courts,
it is very likely that the decision will have an impact on those civilian courts which have
abandoned the per se rule excluding polygraph evidence. 25
1966 U.S.L W. at 4237.
21Id. at 4238.
22Id. at 4237.
23Deciding that the Sixth Amendment right of the accused to call witnesses in his favor had
not been violated, the Court's reasoning appears to have been based upon the conclusion that the
results of the polygraph exam did not constitute factual evidence regarding the crime at hand.
"Rather the evidence introduced is the expert opinion testimony of the polygrapher about whether
the subject was truthful or deceptive in answering questions about the alleged crime. A per se
rule excluding polygraph results therefore does not prevent an accused--just as it did not prevent
respondent here--from introducing factual evidence or testimony about the crime itself, such as
alibi witness testimony .... For the same reasons, an expert polygrapher's interpretation of
polygraph results is not evidence of `the accused's whole conduct' .... It is not evidence of the
`accused's ... conduct' at all, much less `conduct' concerning the actual crime at issue. It is merely
the opinion of a witness with no knowledge about any of the facts surrounding the alleged crime,
concerning whether the defendant spoke truthfully or deceptively on another occasion." 66
U.S.L.W. at 4239, n. 13.
24Id. at 4237.
25See, e.g., United States v. Cordoba, 104 F.3d 225, 228 (9th Cir. 1997); United States v.
Posado, 57 F.3d 428, 434 (5th Cir. 1995).