Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that current police tactics for eliciting eyewitness evidence are woefully inadequate. They are revising guidelines for traditional police lineups. This makes it just one of two states that has any kind of uniform guideline for these police procedures. Given that these faulty tactics are responsible for at least 190 known wrongful convictions, this decision is likely to shed further light on an issue that would improve the justice of America’s criminal justice system.
The New York Times explains the logic of the decision: “In its ruling, the court strongly endorsed decades of research demonstrating that traditional eyewitness identification procedures are flawed and can send innocent people to prison.” The court then “attached consequences for investigators who fail to take steps to reduce the subtle pressures and influences on witnesses that can result in mistaken identifications.”
Anyone who has seen a TV crime show is familiar with the police lineup, in which an officer guides an eyewitness to a room where he or she can identify a criminal from a line of possible suspects. Though it is no longer done this way (the police officers use pictures now), this is how most police departments put together eyewitness accounts. It turns out, though, that only 25-30% of police departments across the country have any kinds of guidelines for this part of the investigation.
Not surprisingly, with no oversight, as much as 1/3 of all eyewitness testimony is incorrect. In light of these inconsistencies, increasing regulation on police lineups is expected to have little impact on public safety; there is no reason why these rules will make it easier for criminals to get off. Lt. Matthew Murray, a spokesman for the Denver, Colorado police chief, noted that in his city (which has implemented similar regulations on lineups) regulations “don’t impact cases negatively, and actually have just the opposite effect.”
In New Jersey, the proposed changes are minimal, but expected to have a big effect. Most importantly, the lineups will be done blindly, so the police officer who shows the witness the pictures will not know which pictures are those of suspects. Also, instead of giving witnesses one batch of pictures, officers will now do the lineup more gradually, so witnesses do not feel pressure to pick an innocent person out of a group.
Adam Serwer of The American Prospect goes further, suggesting that the way that police lineups are conducted is not the only problem – eyewitness testimony in general is unreliable at best because, though “our memories may seem vivid, they’re often not as accurate as we think they are.” If studies do show that “even under ideal conditions most of us are lousy at IDing people, and under the conditions of most crime scenes we’re a whole lot worse,” Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues, the New Jersey court decision should merely be the first step in a series of national regulations.
Indeed, with the US Supreme Court reviewing police methods this November, the New Jersey court decision could set the stage for much needed reform. When reviewing the case, the nation’s highest court should consider the hundreds of people who have been misidentified and forced to go to prison for crimes they did not commit… and the low-cost remedies that New Jersey is about to implement.
Photo credit: barry.pousman's Flickr stream.