Sunday, September 8, 2013

Take a Deep Breath and Lie Through Your Nose, Pinocchio

A few days ago, I stumbled across Matt Zapotosky's story in the Washington Post about the unlikely prosecution (well, really, no prosecution is unlikely these days) of Chad Dixon for teaching people how to beat the Magic 8 Ball polygraph. It seems that back in December, Dixon pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and obstruction of an agency proceeding.
In the eyes of federal prosecutors in Virginia, Chad Dixon is a brazen criminal whose misdeeds threatened border security, state secrets and young children across America. They say he taught convicted sex offenders and aspiring federal law enforcement officers how to cheat their court- or job-imposed lie detector tests — even when he knew that they planned to use his advice for nefarious purposes.
. . . 
He is accused of teaching what prosecutors term “polygraph countermeasures” to as many as 100 people across the country — among them convicted sex offenders in the Washington area and undercover agents who told Dixon that they would use his techniques to cheat their tests for Customs and Border Protection jobs.
As a friend once put it, "Oh my stars and garters!"

Friday, Dixon was sentenced, and Zapotosky has a follow-up story.  Prosecutors asked Judge Liam O'Grady to lock Dixon up for at least 21 months.  O'Grady declined as he declined simply to give him probation.
O’Grady, though, rejected Dixon’s request for no prison time, saying that Dixon “went into this business for greed” and his teachings “potentially caused a great deal of damage.” He noted that Dixon — who pleaded guilty in December to wire fraud and obstruction of an agency proceeding — went too far when he helped undercover agents learn to cheat the polygraph after they told him specifically that they intended to lie as they applied for federal jobs.
See, Dixon's motives weren't pure.  And who knows what evil might have ensued if . . . . Well, if the undercover agents who said they wanted to cheat to get government jobs were real applicants for the jobs and if they were actually successful in cheating the machines because of what Dixon taught them and they actually got the jobs and actually turned out to be sleeper agents of Al Qaeda or something.

Still, 21 months was too much.  O'Grady gave him 8 months in the slammer. He explained.
There’s nothing unlawful about maybe 95 percent of the business he conducted.
But what of that business?
[H]is instruction was sometimes as simple as “relax and breathe normally.”
For this, Dixon charged as much as $1,000.  As P.T. Barnum is regularly (though perhaps improperly) credited with saying
There's a sucker born every minute.
OK, a couple of points need to be made here.

First, it's not at all clear that Dixon actually committed any crime.  His plea makes him legally guilty, but did he actually, factually, violate any law?  And if so, is it a law we want to enforce against someone as evil as Dixon?  Convincing the gullible to overpay for something of little value may be immoral (or may be the essence of Americanism - which depending on your perspective could be the same thing), but it's hardly criminal.  Still, he did claim he was teaching people to cheat, and some of the would-be cheaters said that they wanted help scamming the feds, so he might be factually guilty (or a jury might have found him to be) of a conspiracy offense from which he pled down.

Second, and far more important, polygraph results generally aren't admissible in court.  Why?  Because 
  1. They're bullshit.
  2. Juries believe them.
And if you don't believe Number 1, then think about how it is that Dixon so scared the federal government.  They knew that it was possible to fool the machine by parlor game tricks (like breathing).  And if the machine can be intentionally fooled that easily, it's close to worthless.

Except for the fear thing.  Which is why Judge O'Grady was absolutely right about the machines.
“They’re very useful tools,” O’Grady said, “until you turn the machine on.”


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