Polygraph Evidence Properly Excluded In Officer’s Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

Robert Piel worked for the Federal Way, Washington Police Department for nearly 11 years, as an officer and then as a lieutenant. In May 2006, Chief Anne Kirkpatrick terminated Piel for misconduct when Piel directed a subordinate officer to release a firefighter detained on suspicion of drunk driving. Piel successfully grieved his termination through arbitration. He contended the Department lacked just cause to terminate him and that his termination was motivated by anti-union bias.

In August 2007 – nearly 13 months after his termination – Piel returned to work. On his first day back, Piel made several questionable comments. For example, Piel asked one newlywed officer, who he had not met, if her husband was ugly and if they planned to have kids. She testified that the comments made her uncomfortable and that she did not want to answer Piel because she did not know him: “I was so hot, sweaty, embarrassed, uncomfortable, enraged, and disgusted that I threw my chair back and stated, ‘Are we done?’ I then walked out of the briefing room feeling completely helpless and furious.” One officer stated that Piel’s behavior approached conduct unbecoming of an officer.

Witnesses heard Piel make some threatening statements after a unit briefing. Jail Coordinator Jason Wilson testified that Piel said he had thought about “murdering” people in the department. Two other officers heard the comment; one thought Piel was joking and the other did not view the comment as a serious threat.

The City eventually retained an attorney to conduct an investigation into Piel’s comments. The attorney interviewed Piel and the three who heard the threatening comments. Though Piel denied he made the statements, the attorney’s final report concluded that Piel “did make a comment to the effect that he had thought of murdering others with his gun at some point or points during the 15-month period he was absent from the Police Department.” The City then terminated Piel for the threatening comments and untruthfulness.

Piel and his wife sued the City, alleging wrongful discharge and a variety of other claims. The Piels’ claims were pared down by a trial court through the summary judgment process and the remaining claim was rejected by a jury. The Piels then appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals.

The Piels’ main argument was that the trial court erred when it excluded evidence that he had taken and passed a polygraph. The Appeals Court disagreed, finding that “the trial court properly ruled that the polygraph evidence was more prejudicial than probative. The collective bargaining agreement also prohibits polygraph evidence absent a stipulation by the parties. Piel has failed to show that the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded the polygraph evidence.

“Generally, courts exclude polygraph evidence due to its unreliability and the powerful effect it can have on juries. Evidence that a polygraph test has been taken or passed is inadmissible absent stipulation by both parties because the polygraph has not attained general scientific acceptability. Because polygraph evidence is liable to be prejudicial, it should be admitted only when clearly relevant and unmistakably nonprejudicial.

“The trial court’s decision to exclude the polygraph evidence does not amount to an abuse of discretion. Given the polygraph evidence’s limited probative value and its potential for prejudice, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the evidence.”

Piel v. City of Federal Way, 2016 WL 2870674 (Wash. App. 2016).