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EVAWI > Resources > Best Practices > FAQs > Polygraph
Q What are the concerns about using a polygraph or other truth-telling device during a sexual assault investigation?
A What are the concerns about using a polygraph or other truth-telling device during a sexual assault investigation?

The polygraph is widely recognized as a tool that can be very useful with the suspect in a sexual assault case. There are serious concerns, however, when the polygraph or other truth-telling device is used with a victim of sexual violence.

The OLTI module entitled, False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issues to Successfully Investigate Sexual Assault explains how the presentation of a polygraph or other truth-telling device can communicate an attitude of mistrust and potentially intimidate victims into withdrawing their cooperation or even recanting their report. These methods can include the use – or threat of using – polygraph examinations, voice stress analysis, handwriting analysis, statement validity analysis, and other means to determine whether the victim is telling the truth. Such methods put the victim in the “hot seat” and can damage or destroy any rapport or trust between the victim and law enforcement.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) published an excellent document entitled The Use of Truth-Telling Devices in Sexual Assault Investigations. It reviews the empirical research on the accuracy of truth-telling devices, outlines judicial and legislative issues, and highlights concerns about the use of these devices with sexual assault victims. This report also describes the ways in which polygraph testing may undermine a victim-centered approach to investigation, and concludes:

The use of a polygraph test by investigators to determine the validity of a sexual assault complaint or the credibility of the victim is likely to be harmful to both the investigation and the victim (p.12).

In addition to these more general concerns, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2005 specifies that any state, territory, or tribe receiving funds through the STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant Program or the Grants to Encourage Arrest Program must certify that polygraphs and truth-telling devices are not being used with victims of sexual assault in any of their jurisdictions, as a condition for investigating or prosecuting the offense. These provisions took effect early in 2009.

States, territories, and tribes differ widely in their laws, policies, and regulations governing the use of polygraphs and truth-telling devices. NSVRC therefore provides a list of individual state legislation regarding polygraph use. Statutory compilations and case law summaries on this topic can also be provided upon request by AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women.

Perhaps the clearest statement is offered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, in their document Sexual Assault Incident Reports – Investigative Strategies. Among their best practice recommendations, they state: “Do not polygraph victims.”

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