Police Lineups and Other Identification Situations

The justification for double-blind lineups is to protect against mistaken identification. The administrator's behavior may differ if they know who the suspect is. For example, an administrator may try to lead the witness to the suspect's photo, consciously or unconsciously.

You've seen it in crime dramas dozens of times. Police usher one or more criminal suspects and a few similar-looking people into a room at the police station. Behind a one-way mirror, law enforcement asks an eyewitness to identify the perpetrator. This is a police lineup. It is one of several methods law enforcement uses to identify a criminal suspect.

Police lineups are a "critical stage" in the criminal justice system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel (United States v. Wade and Gilbert v. California, both in 1967).

This article summarizes police lineups. It also describes alternate identification methods used by law enforcement. It further discusses the circumstances that trigger a defendant's right to counsel.

Police Lineups Explained

Law enforcement generally conducts police lineups using one of three methods:

  • Simultaneous lineups (live)
  • Sequential lineups (live)
  • Photo lineups (simultaneous or sequential)

Police lineups involve a witness looking at several people. One of these people is a law enforcement suspect in an alleged crime. The other people are "fillers." The witness's job is to try to identify the suspect.

Regardless of the method chosen, there are some constants to lineup procedures. The witness usually sits with a lineup administrator behind a one-way mirror. The administrator is either "blind" or "nonblind." If the administrator is "blind," they do not know the suspect's identity. This method is a "double-blind" lineup, as neither the witness nor the administrator knows which person in the lineup is the suspect.

In a simultaneous lineup, the witness views every member of the lineup at the same time. In a sequential lineup, the witness views the lineup participants one by one. Most police departments use photo lineups or photo arrays. Photo lineups use simultaneous or sequential lineup methods but use a photo array of the suspect and fillers rather than a live lineup.

The Right to Counsel, Police Lineups, and Other Identification Methods

In certain situations, the defendant is entitled to have counsel at the lineup. The prosecution can't admit into evidence lineup or show-up identification without a defense attorney. The right to counsel at a lineup gets triggered "at or after initiation of adversary criminal proceedings." These proceedings may include information, indictment, arraignment, formal charges, or preliminary hearing." (Moore v. Illinois)Lineups provide the potential for intentional and unintentional witness and administrative errors. Without the defendant's attorney at the lineup, these errors may not get discovered and fixed before trial.

The right to counsel doesn't apply to some other methods of identification. These include evidentiary material relating to the defendant, such as:

  • Blood samples
  • DNA samples
  • Handwriting samples
  • Voice samples

In these cases, there is far less chance that the absence of counsel might lead to a misidentification. So, the defendant's due process right to a fair trial in their criminal case is likely preserved.

The Sixth Amendment only guarantees counsel at pretrial proceedings or preliminary hearings if the defendant is present. Also, the defendant's presence must be required at a trial-like confrontation at which the defendant needs the advice and help of counsel. This includes a police lineup and possibly other identification procedures. An accused person's presence in a photo array would not need defense counsel. The defendant's presence was not required, and the identification process was non-confrontational. As the Supreme Court has noted, any identification procedure must meet the Due Process Clause.

Police Lineups and the Problem of Misidentification

Eyewitness identification can be a powerful form of evidence at a trial. Even the most confident eyewitness can mistakenly identify someone as the suspect. A crime can happen quickly. An eyewitness often has a short time to see what's happening or remember specific details about the offender's appearance.

Also, witnesses must remember what they saw if they're later called to help police identify a suspect or testify in court. Witnesses must avoid their own biases or media reporting about the crime. Criminal trials sometimes happen years after the crime happened. Memories can fade or even change with time.

One study analyzed wrongful convictions. In cases where DNA testing exonerated the convict, 75% involved eyewitness misidentification. DNA evidence eventually corrected the mistake. But, misidentification can happen whenever police use unreliable identification procedures. For example:

  • Police may present a witness with photos or a lineup with only one suspect matching the witness's description
  • The police officer conducting the identification procedure may know the suspect's identity and signal this to the witness intentionally or unintentionally
  • Police may not have a method to determine the witness's confidence level in their identification

Concerns about reliability justify the need for counsel in most situations involving witness identifications. Mistakenly identifying a suspect can lead to a wrongful conviction. So, if criminal proceedings have started, the defendant has a right to have a lawyer present.

Have Questions About Police Lineups? Talk to an Attorney

You may soon join the criminal justice process if you're facing criminal charges. This may include facing a police lineup or interrogation. A criminal defense attorney can help protect your rights. A criminal defense lawyer can give you important legal advice on:

  • How to defend against eyewitness testimony in your criminal case
  • The admissibility of specific evidence in your case
  • General information about criminal law and criminal proceedings, like an arraignment hearing
  • Your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination

Navigating a criminal case is difficult and stressful. Contact an attorney near you today to ensure you have the best defense available.

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