The owner of a company that offers to teach customers how to pass a polygraph test, more commonly known as a “lie detector” test, has been indicted by federal prosecutors on five counts of fraud and witness tampering. United States v. Williams, No. 5:14-cr-00318, indictment (W.D. Ok., Nov. 13, 2014). Prosecutors allege that the defendant marketed his services to people who were scheduled to appear for polygraph tests with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. They further claim that he trained people “to lie and conceal crimes” in polygraph tests used during the employment screening process and during internal investigations.
Polygraph examinations use a device that measures and records a subject’s pulse, blood pressure, respiration, and other indices as the subject answers a series of questions. The idea is that the subject will display different physiological responses when lying. The position of the scientific community, generally speaking, is that polygraph tests are not a reliable means of determining whether or not someone is telling the truth. Polygraph test results are nevertheless admissible in criminal trials in some U.S. jurisdictions under certain circumstances, and they are used by the federal government for employment screenings.
The test relies on the assumption that deception produces a unique set or pattern of physiological responses, but as the American Psychological Association notes, no evidence exists to support this assumption. Numerous other factors, including the placebo effect, could affect the results and produce false “positives.” In Williams, the defendant is a former Oklahoma City police officer who has been an outspoken critic of polygraph tests for years. He owns and operates Polygraph.com, where, he claims, he does not offer training on how to “beat” the test, but rather how to avoid results that lead to false accusations of lying.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that individual jurisdictions may decide whether or not to allow the admission of polygraph results as evidence in criminal cases. United States v. Scheffer, 523 U.S. 303 (1998). That case involved a defendant’s attempt to introduce polygraph results that showed “no deception” in his denial of drug use. Texas courts have prohibited their use at trial and in probation revocation proceedings. Leonard v. State, 385 S.W.3d 570, 575 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012); Tennard v. State, 802 S.W.2d 678, 683 (Tex. Crim. App. 1990).
The federal government has taken a hard stance in recent years against people who offer instruction on ways to “beat” polygraph tests. A federal judge in Indiana, for example, sentenced a man to eight months in prison after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud and obstruction. The judge acknowledged “gray areas” between the First Amendment right to discuss how polygraph examinations work and teaching a person how to lie on an examination, which the judge called a crime deserving of jail time.
The Williams indictment describes specific instances in which the defendant allegedly coached undercover law enforcement agents on how to pass a polygraph test. It alleges two counts of fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1341, describing his alleged acts as a scheme to defraud the United States. It also alleges three counts of witness tampering. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(b)(1), (b)(2).
Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has defended people in west Texas criminal proceedings at the state and federal level for more than two decades. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.
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Photo credit: By DENker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.