The Frye Standard and Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence


During the twentieth century, as science advanced, the legal system “attempted to develop coherent tests for the admissibility of scientific evidence.” The first notable development occurred in 1923 with the issuance of the landmark decision in Frye v. United States,293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), a federal case decided by the District of Columbia Circuit in 1923. In Frye the D.C. Circuit considered the admissibility of testimony based on the systolic blood pressure test, a precursor of the modern polygraph. The court announced that a novel scientific technique “must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs” (Id. at 1014). The court found that the systolic test had “not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities” (id.). Thus, under the Frye standard, it is not enough that a qualified individual expert, or even several experts, testify that a particular technique is valid.  Scientific evidence is allowed into the courtroom if it is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community.  Frye imposes a special burden: the technique must be “generally” accepted by the relevant scientific community. 

In 1975, more than a half-century after Frye was decided; the Federal Rules of Evidence were promulgated to guide criminal and civil litigation in federal courts. The first version of Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provided that:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

After the promulgation of Rule 702, litigants, judges, and legal scholars remained at odds over whether the rule embraced the Frye standard or established a new standard.  There was also much controversy in the application of Rule 702 in civil cases.  Such as, judiciary’s acceptance of unreliable expert testimony in support of tort claims.