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Police lineups and eyewitness accounts have flaws

Posted by Saul Steinberg | Dec 26, 2018 | 0 Comments

If part of the probable cause for your arrest involved an eyewitness identification in a police lineup, either live or using photographs, you have every reason to be concerned. Eyewitness testimony carries significant sway with juries even though the science behind it is weak. In fact, in the past three decades, 29 percent of overturned convictions resulted from witnesses wrongly identifying a suspect.

Knowing how police lineups work and the recent reforms in lineup procedures may help you understand whether police in your case may have accidentally or intentionally swayed the decision of the witness who picked you out of a lineup.

Problems with lineups

Some civil rights advocates believe police lineups are inherently flawed because of the way human memory works. A lineup assumes eyewitnesses recollect the events of a crime and the faces of those involved like pictures in their brains. This is not the case, and research shows that many who claim to have witnessed a crime were too emotional to even understand what was happening, let alone get a good look at the suspect. Even those who were victims of crimes are often too afraid to look closely at their assailants.

Nevertheless, a witness brought to a police lineup often makes an incorrect choice based on the following factors:

  • Police instructions imply the offender is definitely among those the witness will see.
  • Police may subtly influence the choice of a witness, for example interrupting the witness if he or she is about to choose a filler in the lineup instead of the person police want to arrest.
  • Investigators may create a lineup in which the fillers have little resemblance to the suspect police want the witness to identify.

If a witness picked you from a lineup but seemed uncertain of the choice, officers may intentionally discuss matters surrounding the case within earshot of the witness to strengthen his or her decision so the witness's testimony will be more confident during your trial.

New protocol for lineups

New Jersey was the first state to adopt new procedures for police lineups to make them more valuable tools for prosecutors and less likely to produce false identifications. Some of the changes involve the following:

  • Police in the room with the witness do not know which person in the lineup is the suspect.
  • Lineups must have at least six members, but only one of them can be a suspect.
  • All fillers in the lineup should resemble the description eyewitnesses gave of the offender.
  • Witnesses must know that the suspect may not be in the lineup so they do not feel pressured to make a choice if they aren't certain.
  • Police must also record the witness making an identification so there is a record if the witness hesitates or is unsure of the choice.

If you are facing serious criminal charges after a witness picked you from a lineup, you would benefit from seeking the legal advice of a skilled and savvy defense attorney. An attorney with experience defending those accused of crimes will have the resources to challenge any evidence against you, especially eyewitness identification.

About the Author

Saul Steinberg

Saul J. Steinberg was born and raised in Camden, NJ. He has practiced in Camden County since first being admitted to the bar. Since 1990, he has also handled cases in Southeastern Pennsylvania.The emphasis of Saul's practice is in Criminal and Civil litigation. He has handled major criminal and c...


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