Bill would limit polygraphs for rape victims

December 20, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

A state bill proposed for the coming legislative session would prohibit police from asking rape victims to take polygraph tests in most cases.

Under Senate Bill 26, neither police nor prosecutors could ask the victim of a sex crime to take a polygraph unless the accused took one first and it indicated possible innocence.

The sponsor, Sen. Idamae Garrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she put the bill in after hearing complaints about the practice and reading a Sun story last August on the issue. Senator Garrott said the bill "will be a signal to people who are victims that they are going to be treated in a proper way."

Police in Baltimore and 19 of Maryland's 23 counties administer polygraph tests to rape victims. Some agencies say they do it only occasionally, others in as many as half the cases. The issue surfaced in the past year after women in several counties complained to rape counselors.

The directors of Maryland's 17 rape crisis centers asked police to stop the practice, calling it demeaning and unreliable. But police agencies countered that the test is a valuable tool that weeds out false accusations and saves innocent men from jail time.

The bill could have a rough ride in the legislature, which opens its annual session in January.

Rape crisis centers and several female legislators are already backing it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has not studied the bill enough to make a decision, but supports the idea in principle.

Police and many prosecutors, on the other hand, are expected to oppose it.

Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak, D-Baltimore, a leader of the legislature's women's caucus, is one supporter who sees polygraphing sex crime victims as discriminatory because most are women.

Delegate Krysiak noted that when her car was stolen last year, a police officer took her statement and implicitly believed her.

"Why is it, if it is a sex crime, that we assume there is this greater propensity to lie?" she asked. "I can report any other crime, and I'm not asked to take a polygraph test."

To become law, the bill could have to pass through the legislature's two judicial committees. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he wasn't inclined toward the idea and didn't want to tie the hands of police.

"We'll see what it looks like when it gets to us, if it gets to us," he said. "I'd have to hear a lot of testimony before I'd be convinced, but I'll keep an open mind."

One of the major concerns about polygraphs is accuracy. The tests accurately identify liars between 70 percent to 98 percent of the time, according to field studies. Polygraphs are less effective at identifying those who tell the truth. Accuracy rates in those cases run as low as 25 percent.

A recent case in Howard County illustrated the potential problems. Last year, a Howard woman claimed to have been abducted from her home one morning and raped. After she failed a polygraph, police called her a liar and put the case on hold.

Some months later, a man abducted and raped another woman 10 miles away in nearly identical fashion. Police later charged him in both cases.

Polygraphs for rape victims has been an issue in various states around the country for the past 15 years.

At least six states -- California, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Oregon and Illinois -- have either banned or restricted the practice.

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