Using Polygraph Tests to Hire New Feds Upheld by Court

Applicants for federal law enforcement jobs may have to pass a lie detector test to be hired according to a new court ruling that upholds the use of polygraph testing.

The U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently bounced a suit filed by several applicants for federal law enforcement positions who challenged the use of polygraphs as part of the application process. (Croddy v. Federal Bureau of Investigation, D.D.C. Civil Action No. 00-651 (EGS), 9/29/06)

The plaintiffs had applied for positions but were not offered jobs because they failed the polygraph exams. In their suit they argued that polygraphs are unreliable and that their use in the application process violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, and their Constitutional right to privacy. The district court was unpersuaded and granted the federal government’s motion to dismiss and for summary judgment.

The case involved six applicants—two for positions with the FBI and four for positions with the Secret Service. All six failed the polygraph exams and as a result were not offered jobs by the respective agencies.

Plaintiffs claimed that the agencies had damaged their reputations and occupational prospects without due process of law by publishing the findings that the applicants had failed polygraph exams, thus injuring their job prospects with other federal agencies. (Opinion p. 6) Judge Sullivan’s opinion points out that “Government-disseminated information must be false in order to be considered defamatory.” Such is not the case here since the plaintiffs had indeed failed polygraph exams. And, since the plaintiffs were neither discharged nor demoted—they were simply not offered employment—this was not enough to make a case. (p. 8)

As for Plaintiffs’ argument that they were stigmatized, the court found that they had failed to offer specific evidence of their stigmatization and declined to speculate that such stigmatization had occurred. (p. 9)

The plaintiffs’ constitutional privacy argument centered around the fact that they were asked questions regarding medical, psychological, sexual, criminal and drug use histories during the exams. (p. 10) Rejecting this argument, Judge Sullivan states, “Plaintiffs were applying for positions of public trust concerning the security of the nation and of our elected officials. Therefore, even assuming there exists a constitutional right to non-disclosure of private information, Defendants can legitimately inquire into the applicants’ financial, drug use, health, and criminal history.” (p. 12)

In short, federal law agencies may continue to use polygraphs as tools for screening applicants for law enforcement positions.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.