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United States v. Scheffer

March 31, 1998

UNITED STATES V. SCHEFFER


Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Armed Forces

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Syllabus

OCTOBER TERM, 1997

UNITED STATES v. SCHEFFER

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

Argued November 3, 1997

A polygraph examination of respondent airman indicated, in the opinion of the Air Force examiner administering the test, that there was "no deception" in respondent's denial that he had used drugs since enlisting. Urinalysis, however, revealed the presence of methamphetamine, and respondent was tried by general court-martial for using that drug and for other offenses. In denying his motion to introduce the polygraph evidence to support his testimony that he did not knowingly use drugs, the military Judge relied on Military Rule of Evidence 707, which makes polygraph evidence inadmissible in court-martial proceedings. Respondent was convicted on all counts, and the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed, holding that a per se exclusion of polygraph evidence offered by an accused to support his credibility violates his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

44 M. J. 442, reversed.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and II-D, concluding that Military Rule of Evidence 707 does not unconstitutionally abridge the right of accused members of the military to present a defense. Pp. 4-9, 11-14.

(a) A defendant's right to present relevant evidence is subject to reasonable restrictions to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process. See, e.g., Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U. S. 44, 55. State and federal rulemakers therefore have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence. Such rules do not abridge an accused's right to present a defense so long as they are not "arbitrary" or "disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve." E.g., id., at 56. This Court has found the exclusion of evidence to be unconstitutionally arbitrary or disproportionate only where it has infringed upon a weighty interest of the accused. See, e.g., id., at 58. Rule 707 serves the legitimate interest of ensuring that only reliable evidence is introduced. There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable: The scientific community and the state and federal courts are extremely polarized on the matter. Pp. 4-9.

(b) Rule 707 does not implicate a sufficiently weighty interest of the accused to raise a constitutional concern under this Court's precedents. The three cases principally relied upon by the Court of Appeals, Rock, supra, at 57, Washington v. Texas, 388 U. S. 14, 23, and Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U. S. 284, 302-303, do not support a right to introduce polygraph evidence, even in very narrow circumstances. The exclusions of evidence there declared unconstitutional significantly undermined fundamental elements of the accused's defense. Such is not the case here, where the court members heard all the relevant details of the charged offense from respondent's perspective, and Rule 707 did not preclude him from introducing any factual evidence, but merely barred him from introducing expert opinion testimony to bolster his own credibility. Moreover, in contrast to the rule at issue in Rock, supra, at 52, Rule 707 did not prohibit respondent from testifying on his own behalf; he freely exercised his choice to convey his version of the facts at trial. Pp. 11-14.

Thomas, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and II-D, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Souter, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion Concurring in part and Concurring in the judgment, in which O'Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a Dissenting opinion.

Opinion of Thomas, J.

UNITED STATES v. SCHEFFER

____ U. S. ____ (1998)

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

No. 96-1133

UNITED STATES, PETITIONER v.EDWARD G. SCHEFFER

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Armed Forces

[March 31, 1998]

Justice Thomas announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and II-D, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Souter joined.

This case presents the question whether Military Rule of Evidence 707, which makes polygraph evidence inadmissible in court-martial proceedings, unconstitutionally abridges the right of accused members of the military to present a defense. We hold that it does not.

I.

In March 1992, respondent Edward Scheffer, an airman stationed at March Air Force Base in California, volunteered to work as an informant on drug investigations for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). His OSI supervisors advised him that, from time to time during the course of his undercover work, they would ask him to submit to drug testing and polygraph examinations. In early April, one of the OSI agents supervising respondent requested that he submit to a urine test. Shortly after providing the urine sample, but before the results of the test were known, respondent agreed to take a polygraph test administered by an OSI examiner. In the opinion of the examiner, the test "indicated no deception" when respondent denied using drugs since joining the Air Force.*fn1

On April 30, respondent unaccountably failed to appear for work and could not be found on the base. He was absent without leave until May 13, when an Iowa state patrolman arrested him following a routine traffic stop and held him for return to the base. OSI agents later learned that respondent's urinalysis revealed the presence of methamphetamine.

Respondent was tried by general court-martial on charges of using methamphetamine, failing to go to his appointed place of duty, wrongfully absenting himself from the base for 13 days, and, with respect to an unrelated matter, uttering 17 insufficient funds checks. He testified at trial on his own behalf, relying upon an "innocent ingestion" theory and denying that he had knowingly used drugs while working for OSI. On cross-examination, the prosecution attempted to impeach respondent with inconsistencies between his trial testimony and earlier statements he had made to OSI.

Respondent sought to introduce the polygraph evidence in support of his testimony that he did not knowingly use drugs. The military Judge denied the motion, relying on Military Rule of Evidence 707, which provides, in relevant part:

"(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the results of a polygraph examination, the opinion of a polygraph examiner, or any reference to an offer to take, failure to take, or taking of a polygraph examination, shall not be admitted into evidence."

The military Judge determined that Rule 707 was constitutional because "the President may, through the Rules of Evidence, determine that credibility is not an area in which a fact finder needs help, and the polygraph is not a process that has sufficient scientific acceptability to be relevant."*fn2 App. 28. He further reasoned that the factfinder might give undue weight to the polygraph examiner's testimony, and that collateral arguments about such evidence could consume "an inordinate amount of time and expense." Ibid.

Respondent was convicted on all counts and was sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 30 months, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and reduction to the lowest enlisted grade. The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in all material respects, explaining that Rule 707 "does not arbitrarily limit the accused's ability to present reliable evidence." 41 M. J. 683, 691 (1995) (en banc).

By a 3-to-2 vote, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed. 44 M. J. 442 (1996). Without pointing to any particular language in the Sixth Amendment, the Court of Appeals held that "[a] per se exclusion of polygraph evidence offered by an accused to rebut an attack on his credibility, . . . violates his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense." Id., at 445.*fn3 Judge Crawford, Dissenting, stressed that a defendant's right to present relevant evidence is not absolute, that relevant evidence can be excluded for valid reasons, and that Rule 707 was supported by a number of valid justifications. Id., at 449-451. We granted certiorari, 520 U. S. ___ (1997), and we now reverse.

II.

A defendant's right to present relevant evidence is not unlimited, but rather is subject to reasonable restrictions.*fn4 See Taylor v. Illinois, 484 U. S. 400, 410 (1988); Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U. S. 44, 55 (1987); Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U. S. 284, 295 (1973). A defendant's interest in presenting such evidence may thus " `bow to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process.' " Rock, supra, at 55 (quoting Chambers, supra, at 295); accord Michigan v. Lucas, 500 U. S. 145, 149 (1991). As a result, state and federal rulemakers have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials. Such rules do not abridge an accused's right to present a defense so long as they are not "arbitrary" or "disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve." Rock, supra, at 56; accord Lucas, supra, at 151. Moreover, we have found the exclusion of evidence to be unconstitutionally arbitrary or disproportionate only where it has infringed upon a weighty interest of the accused. See Rock, supra, at 58; Chambers, supra, at 302; Washington v. Texas, 388 U. S. 14, 22-23 (1967).

Rule 707 serves several legitimate interests in the criminal trial process. These interests include ensuring that only reliable evidence is introduced at trial, preserving the jury's role in determining credibility, and avoiding litigation that is collateral to the primary purpose of the trial.*fn5 The rule is neither arbitrary nor disproportionate in promoting these ends. Nor does it implicate a sufficiently weighty interest of the defendant to raise a constitutional concern under our precedents.

A.

State and federal governments unquestionably have a legitimate interest in ensuring that reliable evidence is presented to the trier of fact in a criminal trial. Indeed, the exclusion of unreliable evidence is a principal objective of many evidentiary rules. See, e.g., Fed. Rule Evid. 702; Fed. Rule Evid. 802; Fed. Rule Evid. 901; see also Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U. S. 579, 589 (1993).

The contentions of respondent and the Dissent notwithstanding, there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable. To this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques. 1 D. Faigman, D. Kaye, M. Saks, & J. Sanders, Modern Scientific Evidence 565, n. †14-2.0, and Section 14-3.0 (1997); see also 1 P. Giannelli & E. Imwinkelried, Scientific Evidence Section 8-2(C), pp. 225-227 (2d ed. 1993) (hereinafter Giannelli & Imwinkelried); 1 J. Strong, McCormick on Evidence Section 206, p. 909 (4th ed. 1992) (hereinafter McCormick). Some studies have concluded that polygraph tests overall are accurate and reliable. See, e.g., S. Abrams, The Complete Polygraph Handbook 190-191 (1968) (reporting the overall accuracy rate from laboratory studies involving the common "control question technique" polygraph to be "in the range of 87 percent"). Others have found that polygraph tests assess truthfulness significantly less accurately -- that scientific field studies suggest the accuracy rate of the "control question technique" polygraph is "little better than could be obtained by the toss of a coin," that is, 50 percent. See Iacono & Lykken, The Scientific Status of Research on Polygraph Techniques: The Case Against Polygraph Tests, in 1 Modern Scientific Evidence, supra, Section 14-5.3, p. 629 (hereinafter Iacono & Lykken).*fn6

This lack of scientific consensus is reflected in the disagreement among state and federal courts concerning both the admissibility and the reliability of polygraph evidence.*fn7 Although some Federal Courts of Appeal have abandoned the per se rule excluding polygraph evidence, leaving its admission or exclusion to the discretion of district courts under Daubert, see, e.g., United States v. Posado, 57 F. 3d 428, 434 (CA5 1995); United States v. Cordoba, 104 F. 3d 225, 228 (CA9 1997), at least one Federal Circuit has recently reaffirmed its per se ban, see United States v. Sanchez, 118 F. 3d 192, 197 (CA4 1997), and another recently noted that it has "not decided whether polygraphy has reached a sufficient state of reliability to be admissible." United States v. Messina, 131 F. 3d 36, 42 (CA2 1997). Most States maintain per se rules excluding polygraph evidence. See, e.g., State v. Porter, 241 Conn. 57, 92-95, 698 A. 2d 739, 758-759 (1995); People v. Gard, 158 Ill. 2d 191, 202-204, 632 N. E. 2d 1026, 1032 (1994); In re Odell, 672 A. 2d 457, 459 (RI 1996) (per curiam); Perkins v. State, 902 S. W. 2d 88, 94-95 (Ct. App. Tex. 1995). New Mexico is unique in making polygraph evidence generally admissible without the prior stipulation of the parties and without significant restriction. See N. M. Rule Evid. Section 11-707.*fn8 Whatever their approach, state and federal courts continue to express doubt about whether such evidence is reliable. See, e.g., United States v. Messina, supra, at 42; United States v. Posado, supra, at 434; State v. Porter, supra, at 126-127, 698 A. 2d, at 774; Perkins v. State, supra, at 94; People v. Gard, supra, at 202-204, 632 N. E. 2d, at 1032; In re Odell, supra, at 459.

The approach taken by the President in adopting Rule 707--excluding polygraph evidence in all military trials--is a rational and proportional means of advancing the legitimate interest in barring unreliable evidence. Although the degree of reliability of polygraph evidence may depend upon a variety of identifiable factors, there is simply no way to know in a particular case whether a polygraph examiner's Conclusion is accurate, because certain doubts and uncertainties plague even the best polygraph exams. Individual jurisdictions therefore may reasonably reach differing Conclusions as to whether polygraph evidence should be admitted. We cannot say, then, that presented with such widespread uncertainty, the President acted arbitrarily or disproportionately in promulgating a per se rule excluding all polygraph evidence.

B.

It is equally clear that Rule 707 serves a second legitimate governmental interest: Preserving the jury's core function of making credibility determinations in criminal trials. A fundamental premise of our criminal trial system is that "the jury is the lie detector." United States v. Barnard, 490 F. 2d 907, 912 (CA9 1973) (emphasis added), cert. denied, 416 U. S. 959 (1974). Determining the weight and credibility of witness testimony, therefore, has long been held to be the "part of every case [that] belongs to the jury, who are presumed to be fitted for it by their natural intelligence and their practical knowledge of men and the ways of men." Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Ward, 140 U. S. 76, 88 (1891).

By its very nature, polygraph evidence may diminish the jury's role in making credibility determinations. The common form of polygraph test measures a variety of physiological responses to a set of questions asked by the examiner, who then interprets these physiological correlates of anxiety and offers an opinion to the jury about whether the witness--often, as in this case, the accused--was deceptive in answering questions about the very matters at issue in the trial. See 1 McCormick Section 206.*fn9 Unlike other expert witnesses who testify about factual matters outside the jurors' knowledge, such as the analysis of fingerprints, ballistics, or DNA found at a crime scene, a polygraph expert can supply the jury only with another opinion, in addition to its own, about whether the witness was telling the truth. Jurisdictions, in promulgating rules of evidence, may legitimately be concerned about the risk that juries will give excessive weight to the opinions of a polygrapher, clothed as they are in scientific expertise and at times offering, as in respondent's case, a Conclusion about the ultimate issue in the trial. Such jurisdictions may legitimately determine that the aura of infallibility attending polygraph evidence can lead jurors to abandon their duty to assess credibility and guilt. Those jurisdictions may also take into account the fact that a Judge cannot determine, when ruling on a motion to admit polygraph evidence, whether a particular polygraph expert is likely to influence the jury unduly. For these reasons, the President is within his constitutional prerogative to promulgate a per se rule that simply excludes all such evidence.

C.

A third legitimate interest served by Rule 707 is avoiding litigation over issues other than the guilt or innocence of the accused. Such collateral litigation prolongs criminal trials and threatens to distract the jury from its central function of determining guilt or innocence. Allowing proffers of polygraph evidence would inevitably entail assessments of such issues as whether the test and control questions were appropriate, whether a particular polygraph examiner was qualified and had properly interpreted the physiological responses, and whether other factors such as countermeasures employed by the examinee had distorted the exam results. Such assessments would be required in each and every case.*fn10 It thus offends no constitutional principle for the President to conclude that a per se rule excluding all polygraph evidence is ...


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