Police lineups are a staple element of crime shows on TV and in the movies. An eyewitness, behind one-way glass, pointing out a criminal suspect among a group of four or five decoys standing along a wall at police headquarters makes for a highly dramatic moment on the screen.
But experts say police lineups are often unreliable. In many cases, innocent people have been wrongly convicted based on the outcome of a lineup, allowing those who are guilty to walk free.
California Lawmakers Seek Changes
Two state lawmakers are now looking to change the way police lineups are conducted in an effort to improve their accuracy. They’ve proposed a bill requiring California police and sheriff’s departments to follow new, research-based lineup procedures that have been adopted by federal law enforcement agencies.
“A fair and equitable justice system must have the strongest policies in place to ensure that we correctly identify people who commit crimes,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), co-author of the bill. “Requiring evidence-based standards for eyewitness identifications will help keep innocent people out of jail while still allowing public safety officials to do their jobs.”
Wrongly Convicted and Sent to Prison
BBC News recently posted a compelling video profiling the experiences of Uriah Courtney and Rafael Madrigal. Both men were wrongly identified in police line-ups and sentenced to long prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. They were both eventually freed through DNA evidence. Courtney had served seven years in while Madrigal had served nine years behind bars.
Among the requirements of the proposed law, police agencies would have to use a practice known as “blind administration” for live or photographic lineups. That means the lineup must be conducted by officers who don’t know the identity of the suspect to avoid the possibility of influencing an eyewitness.
Officers must also video record the process and inform witnesses that a suspect might not be in the lineup.
Other States Lead the Way
According to The Los Angeles Times, at least 19 states have adopted similar procedures for eyewitness identification.
“In California, counties such as Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Clara have implemented them. But no statewide standards exist, even as mistaken identity has helped lead to convictions in 15 out of 23 cases in which people were later cleared by DNA evidence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations,” the Times reports.
Previous efforts to require changes to lineup practices across California have failed. In 2007, Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a measure passed by the legislature, saying the policies should be decided by local agencies.