Polygraphs in Sex Offender Treatment

When individuals are convicted of a sexual offense in Pennsylvania and are placed on probation or parole, they are often required to enroll in a sex offender treatment program. A component of the program often requires individuals to take polygraph examinations. Many concerns have been raised regarding this requirement including:

  1. What happens if I refuse to take the polygraph?
  2. What happens if I refuse to answer specific questions?
  3. What happens if they ask me questions that are not related to the case for which I am on probation?
  4. I accepted a nolo contendere plea and therefore did not have to admit guilt – do I have to admit guilt during the polygraph exam?

It is extremely important to know your rights if you will be subjected to such testing. The precedential legal case that governs this topic is COMMONWEALTH v. KNOBLE which was decided March 28, 2012.  Please carefully read the case which has been posted below.


COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. David S. KNOBLE, Appellee.

No. 2 MAP 2010.

Argued Sept. 14, 2010. — March     28, 2012



In February, 2005, appellee David Knoble entered an open guilty plea to charges of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors, and criminal conspiracy to commit statutory assault, admitting he conspired with his then-wife for her to engage in sexual intercourse with his 14–year–old son while he observed. He was sentenced to an aggregate term of one to two years imprisonment followed by four years probation and was ordered to comply with any special probation conditions imposed by the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

After serving the sentence of imprisonment, Knoble was placed on probation; he signed an Acceptance for State Supervision form agreeing to abide by the special probation conditions imposed by the court and the supervising probation staff. One condition required successful completion of a sex offender outpatient program; Knoble was advised that termination from or unsuccessful completion of the program would constitute a probation violation. He underwent a sex offender intake assessment with the treatment facility and began attending a specialized high-risk weekly counseling group. Six months into his probationary term, Knoble was terminated from the program for dishonesty during his sexual history therapeutic polygraph tests and was arrested for violating his probation.

At Knoble’s Gagnon II hearing, Jon Welsh, a certified sex offender treatment specialist in charge of Knoble’s sexual counseling group, testified that one of the primary stages of sex offender treatment is for an individual to take a sexual history therapeutic polygraph in order to objectively assess a participant’s self-reported sexual history. After failing the polygraph, Knoble admitted during group treatment that he had been dishonest about his sexual history. Knoble took a second polygraph, and again disclosed during a subsequent group therapy session that he had been deceptive about essential aspects of his sexual history. Knoble admitted he had victimized other minors, and accepted responsibility for a sexual offense against a minor for which he had previously been acquitted. Due to his continued dishonesty, Knoble was released from the program.

Following the hearing, the court revoked Knoble’s probation, determining the sex offender treatment was a reasonable special probation condition which Knoble violated by not completing the program; the court sentenced Knoble on his underlying offenses.

The Superior Court reversed, concluding the questions posed during the polygraph tests improperly required Knoble to answer incriminating questions that would result in the divulgence of previously unreported criminal behavior. Commonwealth v. Knoble, No. 1883 EDA 2008, unpublished memorandum at 12 (Pa.Super. filed June 24, 2009). The court relied on Commonwealth v. Shrawder, 940 A.2d 436, 443 (Pa.Super.2007), which determined therapeutic polygraph tests were a proper element in sex offender treatment programs and did not violate the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination so long as the inquiries related to the underlying sentenced offense and did not compel the participant to provide information which could be used against him in a subsequent criminal trial. The court also noted Shrawder’s holding that if a probationer is asked to answer incriminating polygraph questions, he remains free to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Knoble, at 9–10 (citing Shrawder, at 443).

The Superior Court found Knoble was repetitively asked about and often told to provide information regarding his sexual history and conduct unrelated to the underlying offense, and Knoble was discharged from the program when he admitted his dishonesty in answering those questions. Id., at 12. Applying Shrawder, the Superior Court held such inquiries violated Knoble’s Fifth Amendment rights, and the trial court erred in finding Knoble violated his probation. Id., at 12–13.

We granted allocatur to determine “whether the Superior Court erred in concluding a probationer may invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination for an unrelated offense, regardless of whether the information will be used in subsequent criminal proceedings, and whether such invocation must be made at the time of interrogation.” Commonwealth v. Knoble, 605 Pa. 256, 988 A.2d 1288 (Pa.2010) (per curiam ). As this issue involves a pure question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our review is plenary. Commonwealth v. Patton, 604 Pa. 307, 985 A.2d 1283, 1286 (Pa.2009).

The Fifth Amendment provides “no person ․ shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” U .S. Const. amend. V. This prohibition not only permits the refusal to testify against one’s self when a defendant in a criminal trial, but “in any other proceeding, civil or criminal, formal or informal, where the answers might incriminate [the speaker] in future criminal proceedings.” Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 426, 104 S.Ct. 1136, 79 L.Ed.2d 409 (1984) (citation omitted).2

The Fifth Amendment privilege is not self-executing, and answers are generally not considered compelled “within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment unless the witness is required to answer over his valid claim of the privilege.” Id., at 427. “In the ordinary case, if a witness under compulsion to testify makes disclosures instead of claiming the privilege, the government has not ‘compelled’ him to incriminate himself.” Id. (quoting Garner v. United States, 424 U.S. 648, 654, 96 S.Ct. 1178, 47 L.Ed.2d 370 (1976)).

The Commonwealth contends there was no Fifth Amendment violation because Knoble’s statements were not used against him at the probation revocation hearing or in any subsequent criminal case. It argues the constitutional right against self-incrimination only occurs if one has been compelled to act as a witness against himself in a criminal proceeding, and a probation revocation hearing does not constitute such a proceeding. See Gagnon, at 782 (probation revocation not part of criminal prosecution). The Commonwealth concedes Knoble may dispute the statement’s use in subsequent criminal proceedings other than those for which he has been convicted, but claims he has no constitutional right to preclude their use at the revocation hearing.

The Commonwealth also argues no Fifth Amendment violation occurred because Knoble failed to invoke his rights during sex offender therapy. It contends the right against self-incrimination is not self-executing, and Knoble’s failure to raise the privilege during the polygraph examinations and interviews precludes his challenge to the statements at the revocation hearing. Thus, no Fifth Amendment violation occurred because Knoble was not compelled to answer over a valid claim of privilege.

Knoble contends the polygraph examinations should be deemed per se unconstitutional because the questions sought information regarding uncharged criminal conduct, which is impermissible under Shrawder.He argues he was compelled to answer the polygraph questions within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment because his probation would be revoked if he did not participate and pass the examination. He believes his failure to raise the privilege should be excused due to his belief that he would be returned to prison if he did not answer the questions.

Knoble argues the information obtained from the examination need not be used against him in order for the polygraph to be considered unconstitutional, as the information sought could lead to the disclosure of facts that would establish guilt or provide an essential link by which guilt could be established. See Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 581 Pa. 490, 866 A.2d 292, 303 (Pa.2005) (Fifth Amendment privilege applies not only to disclosure of facts which would alone establish guilt, but to any fact which may provide essential evidentiary link by which guilt could be established). He also claims the information gained from the polygraph examination has been used against him as a means of probation violation, as a basis for new criminal charges raised against him, and could be used to establish a modus operandi permitting his prosecution in cases where he did not even know the victim.

The United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of Fifth Amendment application to probationers in Murphy, a factually similar case to the one before us. As part of his probation, Murphy was required to participate in a sex offender treatment program, report to his probation officer as required, and be completely honest with the officer in all matters. Murphy, at 422. At some point, the probation officer was advised that during the course of treatment, Murphy admitted to a previous rape and murder. Id., at 423. The officer set up a meeting with Murphy, and Murphy admitted to the previous rape and murder. Id., at 424. The officer informed Murphy she had a duty to inform the authorities of the conduct; Murphy was eventually arrested and charged with first degree murder. Id., at 424–25.

The Court granted certiorari to consider whether “a statement made by a probationer to his probation officer without prior warnings is admissible in a subsequent criminal proceeding.” Id., at 425. The Court noted the Fifth Amendment privilege speaks to compulsion and does not preclude voluntary testimony regarding incriminatory matters; therefore, if a speaker desires the privilege’s protection, he must claim it, or his statement will not be considered “compelled” within the meaning of the Constitution. Id., at 427 (citing United States v. Monia, 317 U.S. 424, 427, 63 S.Ct. 409, 87 L.Ed. 376 (1943)). The Court believed the general requirement to appear and truthfully answer questions did not convert otherwise voluntary statements into compelled ones unless one is required to answer over a valid claim of privilege. Id. Thus, if a speaker is confronted with questions the government should reasonably expect to elicit incriminating evidence, he must generally assert the privilege rather than answer the question if he wishes to avoid self-incrimination. Id., at 429.

The Court noted, while there are well-defined exceptions to this general rule, the exceptions involve some “identifiable factor” which effectively denies the witness the option to admit, deny, or refuse to answer. Id. (citing Garner, at 657). The Court found no such factor present, and specifically found Murphy’s meeting with his probation officer did not amount to a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings. Id., at 429–30; Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). Thus, as Murphy did not assert his privilege, the probation officer’s testimony regarding the incriminating statements was admissible. Murphy, at 440.

The current situation appears to us even less imposing than that in Murphy. Knoble agreed to enter and regularly attend outpatient sex offender treatment. Special Conditions of Parole, 5/23/07, at 2. He acknowledged by signature that he would be required to take polygraph examinations as part of the treatment to determine his involvement in criminal sexual activity and that unsuccessful completion of the program would constitute a direct probation violation, which could result in probation revocation. Id. Importantly, he was aware he could challenge the special conditions if he felt them inappropriate or a violation of his rights. Id., at 3; see also Conditions Governing Special Probation/Parole, 11/26/06, at 2.

Knoble was clearly not in custody at the time of the polygraph so as to warrant Miranda warnings. There was no police supervision during his therapy; the treatment was out-patient in nature, and Knoble arrived and attended the sessions independently. Knoble knew he was able to challenge the conditions of his probation; thus, he was aware he could challenge the polygraph test, which he knew he would have to submit to as a probation condition. Knoble cannot pretend he never expected to be asked about his past criminal endeavors while on probation as “the nature of probation is such that probationers should expect to be questioned on a wide range of topics relating to their past criminality.” Murphy, at 432. There is no suggestion Knoble was in some way misled by any expectation of confidentiality at any point, as he knew his probation officer would be privy to the information disclosed and in fact signed a limited confidentiality waiver, consenting to unrestricted communication between the program staff and his probation officer. Acknowledgment of Limited Confidentiality and Waiver, 5/29/07, at 1; Sexual Offender Treatment Contract, 5/29/07, at 1–2. In sum, one can hardly suggest Knoble was “compelled” within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment, when he knew the terms of his probation, was aware of his ability to challenge the terms prior to beginning his treatment, and failed to raise any such challenge either before or during questioning.

Knoble argues he was compelled to answer the questions within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment, because his probation would be revoked if he did not pass the polygraph, and his failure to raise the privilege should be excused due to his belief he would be returned to prison if he did not fully participate. Essentially, Knoble argues his situation falls within an exception to the general rule requiring a witness to raise his Fifth Amendment privilege, such that the protection against self-incrimination is self-executing.

The Murphy Court addressed and rejected a similar argument. The Court noted an exception to the general requirement of raising the privilege exists if assertion of the privilege is penalized, such that it precludes the witness’s free choice to maintain his silence. Murphy, at 434; see Lefkowitz v. Cunningham, 431 U.S. 801, 805, 97 S.Ct. 2132, 53 L.Ed.2d 1 (1977) (“when a State compels testimony by threatening to inflict potent sanctions unless the constitutional privilege is surrendered, that testimony is obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment and cannot be used against the declarant in a subsequent criminal prosecution.”). The Court found a probation condition requiring a defendant to appear and be completely honest with his probation officer or face revocation did not imply he would be punished with revocation for invoking his right against self-incrimination. Murphy, at 436–37. If, however, the government in any way asserts that a probationer’s claiming of the privilege would lead to probation revocation, the privilege is self-executing, and the incriminating statements are deemed compelled and excluded from a criminal trial. Id., at 435.

The Court noted Murphy was only required to be truthful, and no probation condition indicated his probation was conditional upon his waiving his Fifth Amendment rights with respect to future prosecution. Id., at 437. Accordingly, because the probation conditions did not require Murphy to choose between making incriminating statements and jeopardizing his conditional liberty, the Court found the Fifth Amendment privilege was not self-executing.  Id., at 436.

Here, as in Murphy, nothing in the record suggests Knoble’s probation would have been revoked if he raised his Fifth Amendment privilege, either in challenging the terms of his probation or during the polygraph examination itself. In fact, the option of challenging the terms was clearly open and available to him. Furthermore, if his probation was revoked, his probation violation would result in a hearing, at which point he could argue the probation condition was unreasonable, the violation was excusable, and the need for confinement did not outweigh governing probation policies. See 42 Pa.C.S. 9771 (revocation of probation order requires hearing and proof of violation). In short, the probation condition did not require Knoble to choose between incriminating himself and jeopardizing his liberty. Therefore, the privilege was not self-executing, and Knoble’s failure to raise his Fifth Amendment protection cannot be excused.

In any event, Knoble’s admissions were not the basis for the eventual revocation; rather, he was dismissed for his continued dishonesty in the program. See Discharge Letter, 11/30/07, at 1 (“Knoble’s unsuccessful discharge is secondary to a pattern of deceit in his treatment, which he himself has acknowledged ․ in direct violation of his signed sexual offender treatment contract ․, which states that he will ‘actively and honestly participate in the therapy process, self-disclose․’ ”). At Knoble’s resentencing, the court stated he was being sentenced for the technical probation violation, not being sentenced for prior sexual offenses․ That conduct was before he was initially sentenced and is not a violation of probation and is not charged as such ․ Further, perjury is not a violation of probation, it was not listed as a violation of probation, and he has not been convicted of perjury. As I have indicated, he is being sentenced for failing to complete the sex offender treatment program.

N.T. Sentencing, 5/29/08, at 44 (emphasis added). As the revocation was independent of the incriminating content of Knoble’s admissions, and would have occurred regardless of whether his incriminating statements were revealed at the hearing, the Fifth Amendment is not implicated.

With these facts in mind, we find therapeutic polygraphs containing inquiries asking a participant to provide information that could be used against him in a subsequent criminal trial do not inherently violate the Fifth Amendment. Participation in a therapeutic polygraph examination does not fall within the exception to the general rule that the Fifth Amendment protection must be raised or waived. Accordingly, a probationer who agrees to submit to such an exam as a condition of his probation may raise his Fifth Amendment privilege prior to submitting to the examination or when answering polygraph questions regarding uncharged criminal actions; however, the probationer waives his right to such protection if he does not invoke it upon questioning.

As Knoble failed to raise his Fifth Amendment privilege, his statements given during his therapy may be used against him. Moreover, as his probation was revoked, not for admission of his prior behavior, but because he violated his special probation conditions, no Fifth Amendment violation occurred.

The Superior Court’s order is reversed, and the case is remanded for reinstatement of the trial court’s sentencing order.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

Justice EAKIN.

Chief Justice CASTILLE, SAYLOR and BAER, Justice TODD, Justice McCAFFERY and Justice ORIE MELVIN join the opinion.

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12 Responses to Polygraphs in Sex Offender Treatment

  1. I am concerned about these results, although the justices opinions appear to be sound, my issue is with the dismissal from treatment for a failed polygraph, particularly the sexual history. See the following,http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/atsa/issues/2011-09-15/3.html as there is no evidence that failing a sexual history poses a threat to the community or demonstrates that one cannot complete treatment without reoffending.

  2. k bennett says:

    I question whether he was truly aware he could evoke his 5th ammendment rights during the polygraph. Many times when given papers to sign in court they are long and drawn out with legalese that one has little time to read OR understand. Attorneys should be made to explain ALL conditions and their consequences to their clients before they are allowed to sign anything. Moreover, it would be interesting to have the polygraph questions challenged and see if the person is threatened with being dismissed for failure to comply with treatment. My bet is they would. I also do not see how the polygraph can be used against anyone when it can not be used in a court as evidence anyway! Supposedly polygraphs are unreliable and they can be defeated, so what use are they? In the case of “sex offenders” they are just another tool to use against them and not as a reliable adjunct to therapy. They do not aid the offender in any way in their therapy and as pointed out refusing to comply with their use or failing to pass them does not present a direct harm to the public. They should be done away with.

    • W.C. says:

      These polygraph examinations should ONLY be used to deal with THERAPY issues such as whether or not the offender is having deviant sexual fantasies, whether or not he is masturbating to these fantasies,how often these fantasy/masturbation incidents occur, and if he has disclosed EVERYTHING that took place with the VICTIM(S) FOR WHICH HE WAS PROSECUTED.

      What many treatment providers do is they include questions regarding compliance with any specialized instructions such as:

      (1) If prevented from accessing the Internet, they will ask if you have accessed the internet.

      (2) They will ask if the offender has been alone with any child.

      (3) They will ask if you have used drugs or alcohol.

      (4) They may ask if the offender (pedophile offenders) if they have viewed any child pornography.

      In most states voilation of rules such as the ones I listed above is a criminal offense that can result in additional charges being filed against the offender.  In TN a knowing (intentional) violation of the "Specialized Parole Conditions For Sex Offenders" is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by 11 months 29 days' confinement and a fine up to $2500.  Such self-incriminating questions should not even be asked.  This is a fishing expedition for violation offenses under the guise of "treatment".  I think "treatment" in most cases is a cheesy end run-around the 14th and 5th Amendments.

      The legal counsel for the TN Dept. Of Probation and Parole directed officers to stop using polygraphs as a means of verifying compliance with the Specialized Parole Conditions For Sex Offenders.  He cited 5th Amendment concerns as the reason for discontinuing the practice, however, questions of a self-incriminating nature are still asked as a part of the "therapeutic" polygraphs.  If they are only interested in the progress an offender is making in treatment why do they ask questions that they know would be grounds for filing a violation report against an offender? Is the real aim treatment or finding justification to get the offender off the street and lock him/her up again?

      I would advise sex offenders who have to take polygraphs to talk to legal services and do some research because an individual on parole or state supervision does NOT diminish the offender's rights under the 5th Amendment.  Pleading the 5th cannot be sanctioned.  If the state wants sexual offenders to take polygraphs that include self-incriminating questions, then there should be a grant of Kastigar (Use/Derivitive Use) immunity prior to the administration of any polygraph examination.  An offender cannot fully participate in treatment if he/she has to constantly be guarded about what they say as they avoid self-incrimination.

      There are several cases:  Kastigar v. United States, Lefkowitz v. Turley just to name a couple.  Do your legal research. 

      • W.C. says:


        Once you vocally assert 5th Amendment privilege, put it in writing and sign it and have the examiner sign as a witness to the fact you invoked 5th Amendment privilege. Only then can a 5th Amendment violation be successfully entered if you are compelled to answer after asserting the privilege.

  3. Sherry says:

    I know someone who is going through this same thing.  This person was told they would go back to jail,by the parole office, if they refused to take the polygraph.This person is so stressed out  about it and states the polygraph shows some untruth on answers they know were given truthfully. People are innocent until proven guilty.The polygraph should not be used for this and I agree people should be able to read and understand legal papers before signing them.

    • Igor says:

      Mythbusters just did an episode on beaitng lie detectors. It was still online a couple of weeks ago at the Discovery channel site.As a defense attorney in Maine, I have seen video’s of polygraphs, and agree that the huge thing is the pre-interview, where they get you to admit that you lied about some white lie, it is all very friendly until you admit that you told a lie about something in your past, then the polygrapher freaks out that your a liar and makes it seem like you’re public enemy no. 1. Then he asks you about the crime then leaves the room and watches you on hidden video for 15-20 minutes. If you fall asleep during that time, the polygraph comes back fine. If you do a lot of crying, praying, sweating etc, you are a liar. I don’t think the machine really does all that much.

  4. Don says:

    In Pennsylvania you are guilty of sex offences as soon as you are accused. No guilty finding is required. So any one can accuse you, and you are a sex offender for life Either guilty or innocent

  5. Jason says:

    I am going through a similar situation right now. I have already took therapy and passed a lie detector test for my original charge that happened in 1999. I am currently on probation for a registration violation and my PO told me I had to have an evaluation. I took the evaluation and new right away that the lady wasn't going to give a fair eval. Basically she said I needed therapy and a lie detector test over again for her to properly evaluate me. I declined to sign the therapy papers and left. I now am going to envoke my 5th amendment right. I really don't know how they can say I need therapy over again, just to find out what I've been doing since my last Lie detector test. A whole bunch of sexual and other questions not related at all to why I have to register or my original charge.

    • David says:

      Don, and Jason

      I hear ya and feel what ya going through I went through all that and had only  2 years left till my 10 years was up now I have to register for life, <<<that new law in Pa.and everywhere>>> is so unjust and unconstitutional…I BET our for fathers who wrote the constitution are spinning in their graves…

      Thats the whole thing about therapy IT IS JUST a persons interpretation on how they believe a person will at…BASED on peoples studies of behavior <<THIS>> IS WHERE  the flaw is..<<they can't pinpoint how a person will react to things BECAUSE they can't add in all the different stimuli to make a 100% diagnosis…just like in law.. The attorney's interprete the law their way and the judge does it his way….AND which one makes the most convincing arguement that comes closet to the judges opinion of the law WINS…Just play the game and jump through the hoops until they are done with you.

      And keep the faith and keep fightint this unjustness

      Stressed in PA.

    • Pavel says:

      …But if, as one commenter above says, there could be maechnis that detect simply whether or not someone has seen or witnessed something or not (independent of whether he’s lying about it), that seems like it might be useful.”Yes, useful for your friendly neighborhood secret policeman.MRI scans might well have some real value in sniffing out the truth. And therein lies the problem. Prosecutors and policemen might argue for such techniques to be mandatory, like finger-prints are today. Shouldn’t their 5th amendment right against self-incrimination prevent them from being compelled to subject themselves to such a procedure? I’m sure some court, somewhere, some day, will rule in favor of the all-powerful state on this matter. But it certainly vitiates the 5th amendment. How is it not self-incrimination when your own brain is used against you?I’m all for catching criminals. But not at any cost.

  6. Richard Dyke says:

    Stressed in PA, Jason and Don,

    This "situation" is not going away until someone with lots of money challenges it.  I have a brother that was finishing up his "time", left out early as a "low-risk" until he encountered what i feel was a totally biased group consisting of a counsellor( a former cop), probation officer(s)( one male one female) and a female judge.  The same all around with him, in his group sessions the counsellor drills him about his "deceptiveness" and even accuses him of re-offending. My brother then fails his second "lie" dectector test…no kidding and is kicked out of his consunelling session,  which then became his "violation" of his parole hammered to the judge by his parole officer, thus thrown back into jail as "punishment" for his crime.  Lastly society will not allow us to defend our Constitutional Rights, yet murders and drug dealers get off with lesser sentences and less parole requirements.

    Discussed in PA.


  7. Brian says:

    Can polygraph examiners ask you questions not relating to the offense committed on a polygraph exam? What are my 5th amendment rights to deny a second polygraph exam and not have a probation violation? Can you be convicted of a separate crime through a polygraph exam if you fail the exam?

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