Monday, November 17, 2014

Feds Charge Critic of Polygraph Tests

On Friday, prosecutors announced an indictment against Douglas G. Williams, a 69-year-old man from Norman, Okla., who’s accused of coaching people “how to lie and conceal crimes” during federally administered lie-detector tests. 
Mr. Williams, who operates a company called, says the mail fraud and obstruction of justice charges leveled against him are an “attack on his First Amendment rights.” The indictment follows the federal prosecution of an Indiana man who received eight months in prison in 2013 after pleading guilty to similar charges. 
“This indictment was brought to punish and silence me because I have the audacity to protest the use of the polygraph,” Mr. Williams said in a statement Monday. 
Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Williams “trained an individual posing as a federal law enforcement officer to lie and conceal involvement in criminal activity from an internal agency investigation.” He’s also accused of training another person “posing as an applicant seeking federal employment” to trick a pre-employment polygraph examination.” The Justice Department says the two individuals paid Mr. Williams for the services and were instructed by him to deny having receiving his training. 
The U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s internal affairs office and the FBI’s Oklahoma City field office led the investigation into his work. 
Mr. Williams says that as a former polygraph examiner for the Oklahoma City police department in the 1970s, he came to distrust the tests and made it his life mission to teach people how to trick them. 
“I have the dubious distinction of being the only licensed polygraphist to ever tell the truth about the so called ‘lie detector,’ ” he wrote in a recent self-published book. “And the truth is, the polygraph is no more accurate than the toss of a coin in determining whether a person is telling the truth or lying.”
The polygraph is inherently unreliable. In U.S. v. Scheffer, 523 U.S. 303 (1998), the Supreme Court observed:
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. †, § 4-2.0, to § 14-7.0 (1997); see also 1 P. Giannelli & E. Imwinkelried, Scientific *310 Evidence § 8-2(C), pp. 225-227 (2d ed.1993) (hereinafter Giannelli & Imwinkelried); 1 J. Strong, McCormick on Evidence § 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 (1989) (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, § 14-5.3, at 629 (hereinafter Iacono & Lykken).
 Id. at 309. See also U.S. v. Cordoba, 194 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 1999). The 50% rate given above actually refers to its false positive rate: i.e., there is a 50:50 chance that a polygraph test will say an honest person is lying. The false negative rate is only slightly less.
In the normal administration of the test, technicians rely upon responses that they know to be true to provide a baseline against which deceptive answers can be judged as an increase in nervous arousal. One of the most effective means of faking the test is to enhance arousal accompanying honest answers so that it is difficult to detect increased arousal theoretically accompanying lies. 
The fact that the test can be fooled in this way also highlights the subjectivity with which examiners judge the results, for there is little standardization of procedures as to how much of a polygraph change indicates lying.
Its primary usefulness is that because of fear that it actually works, applicants will admit previously undisclosed misconduct. Moreover, if you go through the list of things to do/don't do in preparation for a test, the government is essentially already telling you what to do to cheat on the exam.  And instructions for "cheating" on the exam are readily available on the internet.

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