United States v. Scheffer

Facts of the Case

A United States Air Force airman who, as a voluntary informant on Air Force drug investigations, had submitted to a urinalysis and a polygraph test, was tried by a general court-martial on a number of charges, which included using methamphetamine, after the airman was absent without leave and Air Force agents learned that the urinalysis had revealed the presence of methamphetamine. The airman entered a motion to introduce, in support of his testimony that he had not knowingly used drugs, polygraph evidence, where in the opinion of the examiner who had administered the airman’s polygraph test, the test had indicated no deception when the airman had denied using drugs. A military judge, relying on Military Rule of Evidence 707–which made inadmissible in court-martial proceedings the results of a polygraph test, the opinion of a polygraph examiner, or any reference to an offer to take, failure to take, of taking of a polygraph test–denied the motion. After the airman was convicted on all charges, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in all material respects. The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, reversing, expressed the view that a per se exclusion of polygraph evidence offered by an accused to rebut an attack on the accused’s credibility violated the accused’s right, under the Federal Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, to present a defense. The Government was granted certiorari.

Question

Does Military Rule of Evidence 707, excluding the admission of polygraph results into evidence, violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a fair defense?

CONCLUSION

No. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court held that Rule 707 was consistent with the legitimate interest of state and federal authorities to admit only reliable evidence. In addition to noting the even-handed scope of Rule 707, excluding from evidence both favorable and unfavorable polygraph results, the Court emphasized the poor reliability of polygraph evidence as a whole. In the absence of sounder detection methods, the Court noted that the fundamental premise of the criminal justice system is that juries are the ultimate and most reliable evaluators of credibility and truthfulness.

Case Information

  • Citation: 523 US 303 (1998)
  • Argued: Nov 3, 1997
  • Decided Mar 31, 1998