Flaws in the eyewitness identification process, especially photo and physical lineups, have led to the wrongful incarceration of innocent people.
Since 1989, 324 people have been released from prison after they were found to be innocent of the crime they were accused of committing, according to the Innocence Project. Approximately 12 of those people were from Florida. Advances in DNA evidence testing led to their release. How did the U.S. criminal justice system wrongfully convict these innocent people of serious felony charges? Bad lawyering, informants, false confessions, government misconduct and use of improper forensic testing are all common causes of this tragic phenomenon. Eyewitness misidentification, however, takes the number one spot as the leading cause of wrongful incrimination. Flaws in the organization and administration of physical and photo lineup processes are largely to blame for these errors.
Problems with physical and photo lineups
Eyewitness identification is affected by system variables, or factors involved in the identification process that law enforcement can control. The American Bar Association lists these variables as the following:
- Selection of people used in a lineup: People who are chosen as 'fillers' in a lineup should not stand out from the suspect. If the suspect is bald, there should be several other people in the lineup that are also bald.
- Type of lineup administered: Depending on the number of potential suspects and the circumstances in the case, officers should choose either a photo or physical lineup.
- Instructions given to a witness before he or she selects a suspect: Prior to the lineup, all witnesses should be told that the suspect may or may not be included in the lineup and that the witness should not feel obligated to choose someone.
- Communication after the witness makes a selection: If the witness has made a selection, the lineup administrator should not comment on the witness's choice. This may send a message to the witness that they have chosen the suspect.
- Blind administration procedures: These procedures, where the lineup administrator is unaware of the suspect's identity, should always be used in order to prevent the administrator from sending unintentional hints as to who the suspect is.
All lineup procedures should be recorded so that attorneys, law enforcement officials and judges can review the eyewitness procedure if a question should arise as to what went on during the lineup process.
Florida eyewitness identification reform
In 2011, The Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Police Chiefs Association developed certain standards in order to gain more control over the eyewitness identification process. Not only do these standards require law enforcement officers to use a script when conducting a lineup, but they also mandate training for lineup administrators.
Partner with an attorney
People who have been charged with assault, sex crimes, burglary or another type of violent crime should be extremely cautious when speaking to law enforcement without the presence of legal representation. When people are under a great deal of stress, they may say things that could be used against them in a court of law. It is crucial that you contact an established criminal defense attorney who can help you through the legal process and ensure that your rights are upheld.
Keywords: wrongful, incarceration, arrest, conviction