August 31, 2013

Officials target lie-detector coaches

Authorities seek prison for a man, saying he crossed the line between free speech and criminal acts.

By MARISA TAYLOR McClatchy Washington Bureau

Prosecutors are asking a federal judge to send a "strong message" by sentencing an Indiana Little League coach to prison for trying to teach as many as 100 people across the country how to beat lie detector tests.

click image to enlarge

Trainees practice using lie detectors. Prosecutors want a prison term for an Indiana Little League coach who they say tried to teach as many as 100 people across the country how to beat lie-detector tests.

The Associated Press

In a test case aimed at deterring other such polygraph instructors, prosecutors have urged the judge to sentence Chad Dixon to one year and nine months in prison, citing a "career of criminal deceit" that included teaching the techniques to child molesters, intelligence employees and law enforcement applicants.

Authorities assert Dixon crossed the line between free speech protected under the First Amendment and criminal conduct when he told some of his clients to conceal what he taught them while undergoing government polygraphs.

"Properly understood, his crimes encompass inviting total strangers into a scheme to defraud and obstruct, and joining in their criminal enterprises," prosecutors wrote. "Dixon adopted a mercenary-like attitude towards the nation's border security and the security of the nation's secrets. He also acted with callous disregard for the most vulnerable in society -- our children. Dixon's misconduct was purposeful, dangerous and it requires punishment."

The prosecutors' push for prison emerged in court filings as a federal judge prepares to sentence Dixon in September. Dixon, 34, pleaded guilty late last year to charges of obstruction and wire fraud after federal agents targeted him in an undercover sting.

The decision to prosecute Dixon and the attempt to imprison him has been cited as an example of the Obama administration's overzealousness in detecting and deterring potential "insider threats," a catchall phrase meant to describe employees who might become spies, leak to the news media, commit crimes or become corrupted in some way.

The case also has sparked a larger debate over whether the federal government should be pursuing such instructors given questions about the reliability of lie detectors, which are not accepted by most courts as evidence against criminal defendants.

Polygraphers interpret measurements of blood pressure, sweat activity, respiration and movement to identify people who lie or try to beat the test. If polygraphers notice unusual responses that they believe indicate lies or manipulation of the test, they try to elicit a confession to confirm their suspicions.

The instructors, meanwhile, claim to teach methods that help the test-takers avoid such scrutiny. The techniques, known as countermeasures, include controlled breathing, muscle tensing, tongue biting and mental arithmetic.

Signaling the prosecution's aggressive posture in Dixon's case, a Justice Department lawyer from the elite division that pursues public corruption is involved. Dixon, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria, Va., a forum often chosen by prosecutors for terrorism and spy cases.

Dixon's defense attorney, Nina Ginsberg, accused the prosecutors of a "shameless attempt" to convince a judge to send her client to prison based on "hyperbole." While she acknowledged that her client earned about $1,000 a session for teaching as many as 70 people over a year and a half, she said he was mostly teaching people how to pass polygraph tests demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity.

"Far from embarking on a 'career of criminal deceit,' Mr. Dixon was a struggling owner of a small family-owned electrical contracting company, with a third child on the way, who saw a way to stave off foreclosure and protect his family from ballooning financial debt," Ginsberg wrote.

An official from U.S. Customs and Border Protection acknowledged in a speech that mere discussion of such techniques is protected under the First Amendment. Customs is leading the crackdown, although other federal and local law enforcement agencies have been involved in the case.

Federal authorities have targeted at least one other instructor in the investigation. Federal agents launched an undercover sting aimed at Doug Williams, whose book is said to have inspired Dixon. Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygrapher, turned over his business records, but federal authorities refuse to say whether they have gathered evidence of any crime.

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