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US Supreme Court makes no change to eyewitness identifications

Posted on in Criminal Defense

After she made the identification of the hand-cuffed man, law enforcement brought the woman to the police station to look at a photo-lineup. She could not identify the man. Nonetheless, the man was convicted of theft charges and sentenced prison on the East Coast. The identification procedure used was the focus of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case.

The issue of unduly suggestive police identification procedures has been argued in court rooms and law schools all across the country for years. Over the past 30 years roughly 2,000 studies have been conducted on the issue. This blog discussed the eyewitness identification issues in last August.

One law professor writes in his book, "Convicting the Innocent," that of the first 250 people who were exonerated by DNA testing after being wrongfully convicted, as many as 190 were convicted through the testimony of a mistaken eyewitness identification.

The United States Supreme Court has not considered the issue since 1977, until this term. Wednesday, the high court handed down its decision in the parking lot identification case, ruling that the identification was not a problem. The court declined to modify how eyewitness identifications should be dealt with in court.

Police had responded to the parking lot after receiving a tip about a suspicious man. They say they found a man in the parking lot who was carrying two amplifiers. The man said he found them, but police detained him anyway and placed him in handcuffs. A resident of the apartment building came out and told police that his car may have been broken into. He told police that his neighbor saw the break in.

Police spoke to the neighbor in her apartment. They asked her for a description, which was sketchy at best. That's when she looked out the window and identified the man in handcuffs, reportedly without solicitation from the police.

The high court ruled that the police did not do anything wrong, and therefore the identification did not violate the defendant's due process rights. The court says the handcuffed identification was not unduly suggestive. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes in the majority opinion, "Safeguards built into our adversary system [of justice] can serve to inhibit juries from placing undue weight on eyewitness and other testimony of questionable reliability... Absent improper police conduct, these safeguards, we hold, keep the introduction of eyewitness identification evidence within constitutional bounds."

Source: Reuters, "Supreme Court backs eyewitness identification with 8-1 ruling," Bill Mears, Jan. 11, 2012

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