Law enforcement typically relies on statements, images and physical evidence to tie a person to a criminal offense. One of the more powerful tools police use to find suspects and support the filing of criminal charges is eyewitness identification. These procedures are supposed to give a witness to an alleged crime the opportunity to identify a possible perpetrator, but they are ripe for abuse and proven in study after study to be unreliable. The unfortunate result is a higher incidence of wrongful conviction when this method of identification is the primary reason a certain person was targeted by police. Two State lawmakers recently introduced bill that would impose Statewide standards, which are currently set by individual police departments, aiming to reduce the number falsely-accused individuals, some which are still convicted. A discussion as to why mistaken identification is so prevalent, and how the proposed legislation seeks to reduce these mistakes, will follow below.
Eyewitness Identification, and Why Witnesses Get It Wrong
As noted above, eyewitness identification, despite its inherent weaknesses, is commonly used by law enforcement to hone in on a potential perpetrator, often because it offers an easier or more direct way to focus their investigation. However, the direction provided does not always match with what actually happened. Misidentification occurs when the wrong person is connected with a crime, and can occur during any of the following routine procedures:
- photo arrays;
- showups (witness shown a single person);
- voice lineups; or
- in-court identifications.
Misidentification is linked to simple human error and improper police procedure. Specifically, people have a harder time correctly identifying a person of another race, remembering things experienced during a stressful and traumatic event, and focusing on a person when a weapon is present. Further, and more basic, the human memory is unreliable, and frequently rearranges events to suit established beliefs, or in response to information learned after an event. What these factors amount to is a propensity to misidentify the responsible parties in an alleged crime purely out of natural human fallacy.
In addition, though, the law enforcement system itself can exert overt and subtle suggestive methods that lead a witness to unknowingly pick a particular suspect. For example, police can form a lineup that has one suspect standing out due to race or other unique characteristics, or ask the witness leading questions, such as the color of an item of clothing worn by the alleged perpetrator, which the responsible party may not have worn.
Proposed State Reforms
Studies on improving the accuracy of eyewitness identification have produced methods that are less likely to produce error, including:
- double-blind lineups – the officer leading the lineup does not know who the suspect is;
- informing the witness that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup; and
- videotaping the lineup to ensure proper instructions were given, and leading questions were avoided.
Under the proposed legislation, Statewide witness identification procedures would be developed, with mandatory adoption by all law enforcement agencies, to more effectively avoid wrongful convictions. The current bill has some required minimum standards that would need to be expanded for full implementation, including:
- obtain a description of the alleged perpetrator from the witness as close in time to the crime as possible;
- use a double blinded procedure to administer the identification process;
- informing the witness before the procedure that the perpetrator may not be included, he/she should not feel compelled to make an identification, and the investigation will continue even if an identification is not made;
- audio and visual recordings of all parts of the procedure must be made; and
- only one suspect may appear in any one lineup.
Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney
The sooner criminal charges are brought to the attention of a criminal defense attorney, the better the chance to achieve a good outcome. Manshoory Law Group, APC focus on criminal defense, giving them a more nuanced perspective over other attorneys who handle a variety of cases. If you are facing criminal charges, let this Los Angeles law firm fight for you. Attorneys are available to take your call 24/7. Contact us for a consultation.