Having worked on numerous wrongful conviction cases caused by misidentifications, I am quite interested in lineup reform efforts, especially in Illinois. Mistaken eyewitness identifications are at or near the top of the list of causes of wrongful convictions. Yet many identification “mistakes” are avoidable.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a social scientist—to figure out that if the police officer running a lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is, the officer can’t make improper suggestions to the witness (either accidentally or on purpose) about who to identify. Nonetheless, “blind administration” of lineups is still the exception rather than the rule.
That could soon change, at least in Illinois.
House Bill 802, sponsored by two former prosecutors (State Representative Scott Drury and State Senator Kwame Raoul), sailed through the General Assembly and is awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature. If the Governor does nothing, the bill will become law on August 25, 2014. House Bill 802 contains several provisions designed to increase the accuracy of identifications. One key requirement is that lineups be run by “independent administrators” when possible, and when not possible, that police use a method whereby the officer running the lineup cannot see which photographs or individuals the witness is viewing until after the lineup is over. This will help prevent suggestiveness from creeping into the procedure.
Another critical feature of the legislation is that physical and photo lineups are to be videotaped—again, where practical. Thus, we can expect to see a dramatic reduction of “he said-she said” disputes (usually between officers and defendants) over what actually happened during the lineup. Did the officer tap her finger on the photo of the suspect, or didn’t she? If the procedure is videotaped, the answer will no longer be in doubt. This should benefit law enforcement by reducing the number of claims of misconduct against police officers—just like videotaping police interrogations has lowered the number of claims of coerced confessions.
Assuming Illinois House Bill 802 becomes law, I am hoping that it is the first in a series of improvements to identification procedures that will make crime investigation more accurate and fair to all.
Update: The bill was signed into law on August 22, 2014, as Public Act 98-1014, effective January 1, 2015. It will be worthwhile to follow its implementation.