United States v. Scheffer
523 U.S. 303 (1998)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1997

Syllabus

UNITED STATES v. SCHEFFER

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ARMED FORCES

No. 96-1133. Argued November 3, 1997-Decided March 31, 1998

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. 308-312, 315-317.

(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. 308-312.


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Syllabus

(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. 315-317.

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, post, p. 318. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 320.

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Acting Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, David C. Frederick, Joel M. Gershowitz, and Michael J. Breslin.

Kim L. Sheffield argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Carol L. Hubbard, Michael L. McIntyre, Robin S. Wink, and W Craig Mullen. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Connecticut et al. by John M. Bailey, Chief State's Attorney of Connecticut, and Judith Rossi, Senior Assistant State's Attorney, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Bill Pryor of Alabama, Bruce M. Botelho of Alaska, Winston Bryant of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren of California, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Thurbert E. Baker


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Full Text of Opinion

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