High Court to Rule on Defendant's Right to Present Polygraph Results as Evidence
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether the results of lie detector tests can be categorically banned from criminal trials without violating a defendant's right to present evidence in his favor.
Several state and federal courts prohibit the introduction of polygraph tests, which measure a person's blood pressure, respiration and other body signs and traditionally have been considered unreliable in determining whether someone is telling the truth.
A ruling in the case involving a U.S. airman who was found guilty of using drugs but had passed a lie detector test would not necessarily lead to lie detector results automatically being admitted into trial. Rather, a resolution could permit trial judges to use their own discretion on whether to admit such evidence rather than be bound by across-the-board bans.
The justices will review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services that said rules forbidding such tests violate an individual's Sixth Amendment right to present a full defense because they force a judge to exclude potentially relevant and favorable evidence offered by a defendant.
"We believe that the truth-seeking function is best served by keeping the door open to scientific advances," the appeals court said.
In urging the high court to take the case and reverse that decision, the Justice Department asserted that "a scientific technique whose reliability and helpfulness are widely questioned by scientists and courts alike may surely be made the subject of a categorical exclusionary rule."
University of Chicago criminal law professor Albert Alschuler said yesterday that while a few courts have considered allowing lie detector tests, the consensus is that the tests can be manipulated and that the results are unreliable.
The case that the Supreme Court will hear began when Airman Edward G. Scheffer was court-martialed at March Air Force Base, Calif., for writing bad checks, using methamphetamine and being absent from duty without permission. Although Scheffer's urine test revealed he used drugs, he denied it and a polygraph test indicated he was telling the truth. But a trial judge rejected Scheffer's request to introduce the lie detector results, citing a military rule of evidence forbidding any reference to lie detector tests in criminal trials.
The military court of appeals reversed and ruled that a trial judge should decide whether scientific evidence is sufficiently relevant and reliable to be admitted. Under the appeals court's decision, a judge could still rule polygraph evidence inadmissible, but he or she would have to first at least weigh the defendant's argument on the matter.
Outside the military context, other appeals courts are divided over whether polygraph evidence should be categorically barred or left to a trial judge to decide whether it should be admitted. A decision by the Supreme Court in United States v. Scheffer would affect both military and civilian courts. The case will be heard in the term that begins in October and a decision is likely to be issued sometime in 1998.
Separately yesterday, in a case of great importance to nonprofit organizations, the justices ruled that a state may not deny a tax exemption to a camp run for charity simply because it draws most of its campers from out of state.
By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices said a Maine law that gives a property-tax exemption to charities only if they serve mostly in-state residents interferes with the flow of interstate commerce. The 1957 law is a rarity, but numerous nonprofit organizations, including the YMCA, American Council on Education and United Way, were closely watching the dispute, concerned that if the Maine law were upheld, it would lead other states to curb benefits for charity groups.
The case marked the first time that the justices treated nonprofit groups like for-profit entities and said states cannot discriminate against out-of-staters by giving in-state residents more beneficial tax treatment.
"We see no reason why the nonprofit character of an enterprise should exclude it" from constitutional protections for the flow of commerce, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. He said the camp is unquestionably engaged in commerce, providing goods and services. "It markets those services, together with an opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of an inland lake in Maine, to campers who are attracted to its facility from all parts of the nation," he wrote. Interstate commerce is significantly affected by such activities.
The case was brought by a Maine nonprofit corporation that runs a summer camp in Harrison, Maine, for children of the Christian Science faith. About 95 percent of the campers came from outside the state.
Dissenting in Camps Newfound/Owatonna v. Harrison were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Scalia wrote for the group that the majority was too broadly reading constitutional protections on interstate commerce to prevent Maine from giving a tax break to charities that rightly benefit the state's residents.
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