Proposed Changes to Eyewitness Line-up Standards Can Reduce Wrongful Convictions

State representatives have introduced legislation to implement new standards regarding how law enforcement conducts live and photo lineups for eyewitnesses.

Legislators backing the initiative believe the changes are necessary to mitigate the potential for guilty individuals to walk free, and innocent individuals to be charged in error.

Under Senate Bill 932 sponsored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin County), law enforcement agencies around the state would be required to embrace methods and procedures for eyewitness lineups that national experts say are more accurate. These methods and procedures were deployed by federal law enforcement agencies and have proved successful.

The changes call for law enforcement to use what’s called “blind administration” lineups that would require they be supervised by officers unaware of the suspect’s identity as a way of preventing them from giving suggestions to the involved eyewitness.

In addition, officers would be required to video tape the entire identification process. During this effort it would be mandatory the tape include copies of all the photos used—even those of fillers and others who are not suspects—and ensure they match a witness’ description of the suspect.

In another example, officers would be required to tell the eyewitness that the suspect was not in the lineup and then take a statement from the witness regarding how confident he/she feels in the suspect they identified.

In advocating for this change, Weiner said, “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.”

Already, 19 states have adopted similar guidelines for eyewitness identification. According to reports, those changes resulted from either legislative action at the state level or judicial mandate.

The California counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, and Santa Clara have already implemented similar changes, but currently there are no statewide standards in regard to this issue, even though, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, mistaken eyewitness identification has led to at least 16 of 23 cases being overturned when DNA evidence was presented.

This is not the first time the California legislature has attempted to address this concern—at least four similar efforts have failed since 2006. Advocates of the legislation are hopeful that the recent shift in the country’s attitude toward criminal justice reform will make this new attempt at revising this aspect of the  criminal justice process more palatable.

“A fair and equitable justice system must have the strongest policies in place to ensure that we

correctly identify people who commit crimes,” Wiener stressed.

Don’t be silent. Let your legislators know where you stand on this important issue. Find their contact information at http://www.legislature.ca.gov/legislators_and_districts/legislators/your_legislator.html.

Track this bill at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB32.

Stephanie Williams, Features Writer

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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