Law Enforcement Procedures May Evolve as Eyewitness Identification is Re-Examined in Court

August 31st, 2011

NEIP Board Member Stanley Fisher, a professor at Boston University School of Law, was quoted in an August 28th New York Times article discussing the fallibility of eyewitness identification. Since the Supreme Court last examined the issue of eyewitness identification in 1977, more than 2,000 studies relating to the fragility of memory have been published. Brandon Garrett’s recent book entitled “Convicting the Innocent” also examined all 250 DNA exonerations (as of publication) and found that eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75% of wrongful convictions.

A recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling endorsed the decades of scientific research on the shortcomings of memory, and an anticipated ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in November could lead to federally mandated changes to how police departments nationwide conduct lineups. Currently there are no federal rules regrarding identification procedures, although the National Institute of Justice issued Guidelines in 1999 that were sent to all police departments in the United States. New Jersey and North Carolina are the only states that have implemented statewide policies aimed to reduce eyewitness error. These standards include administering blind identification procedures, where the officer conducting the line up or photo array is not connected to the case and does not know the identity of the suspect, in an effort to reduce inadvertent cues to the witness, and administering photos sequentially rather than presenting photos to a witness all at once.

While some police departments have been resistant to implement such changes, many departments that have changed their procedures have found that the new standards have been effective in their cases. As court rulings regarding eyewitness identification continue to be issued , they may provide the impetus for implementing these changes at the national level.