Eyewitness Accounts: The Lineup Procedure

by Tabetha Cooper
Ethical issues have been brought up within in the field of criminal investigation pertaining to wrongful convictions as a result of tainted lineups.  In recent years there have been a number of criminal convictions overturned for numerous reasons; one of which being eyewitness accounts.  With an explanation of ethical responsibility of law enforcement to ensure there are no wrongful convictions based on eyewitness testimony, the process used by law enforcement in the identification of suspects, and prejudicial lineups and photo arrays one will be able to understand what is being done to ensure that false identification does not occur neither accidently or intentionally.
It is the responsibility of law enforcement personal to gather all the eyewitnesses following a crime.  Once the eyewitness has been identified they should be kept from other eyewitnesses so that there is not time for the witnesses to talk to each other.  Allowing the witnesses to discuss the event could cause a witness to doubt what they have seen or to collaborate other witnesses’ details into the details from their own memory.  Once the officers have a chance to interview the witnesses, the one with the best memory of the perpetrator should sit down with a sketch artist and a composite should be made.  Witnesses remember in two forms: recall and recognition.  Recall is a memory of the event that can be made verbally.  Recognition is when a witness can pick a person out of a lineup or photo array of mug shots from the Rogue’s Gallery (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).  Not all witnesses to the identification of the perpetrator should be involved in the sketch or able to view a photo array (Foster, 2005) because it is vital that someone can pick the suspect out of a lineup for positive identification.  A lineup is when a suspect is grouped with others for the purpose of being identified by an eyewitness.  A photo array is a group of photographs from the Rogue’s Gallery compiled together along with a picture of the suspect for identification from an eyewitness.  A photo array can be done in lieu of a lineup, but only if a lineup is not feasible (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).
Once a suspect has been picked up a lineup should be done as soon as absolutely possible.  This is because the less time between the crime and the lineup the better the memory of the eyewitness, if the suspect is not the perpetrator the innocent can get be freed faster, and if the suspect is released on bond prior to the lineup the entire process could be “delayed or frustrated” (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).  Because of the need for speed in conducting a line up a procedure should be put in place to help things along.  The procedure should include a quick way of contacting all eyewitnesses, gathering people other than the suspect, and for contacting a lawyer to be present.
It is the responsibility of law enforcement personal to conduct the lineup.  It is vital that they exercise extreme caution to do so in an attempt to not contaminate the results.  The Supreme Court has ruled that a police lineup should consist of at least three people and the ratio should be two non suspects for every one suspect in the lineup (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).  In gathering participants for the lineup police should be sure to select those that resemble the suspect.  The participants should be of the same approximate height, weight, age, skin tone, body type, and sex.  They should have the same hair color, style, and length.  If the suspect has a mustache or sideburns so should all the participants.  If the eyewitness remembers a distinguishing article of clothing or glasses then all participants including the suspect should wear that item.  If not enough of the distinguishing article can be found then no one should wear anything resembling it (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).
To help ensure that a witness does not make a false identification, the witness should not have any help picking out the perpetrator from the lineup.  Law enforcement need to make sure certain steps are followed to be sure that the lineup is not being biased and that the identification will hold up in court and not result in a conviction being overturned due to the identification of the suspect.  The perpetrator should be permitted to choose what spot he wants to stand in during the lineup and be allowed to switch the spot after every witness that views the lineup.  Only one eyewitness should be permitted to view the lineup at a time and none of the witnesses should be allowed to talk to one another.  To be completely safe no witness should see each other during this process so that no gestures are given that can give away who the person picked during their viewing of the lineup.  The lineup must recorded to ensure that all identifications were done on the eyewitnesses accord and that they were offered no help (Bennett, Hess, & Orthmann, 2007).  Last but not least the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the suspect the right of council and this includes during the lineup (United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, 1967). The suspect has the right to waive council during this process but he/she must sign a waiver stating that they are waiving their right to council (Bennett, Hess, & Orthmann, 2007).
The responsibility falls on law enforcement to make sure the proper steps of identification is followed, that the witnesses are not biased upon making the identification, and to ensure the suspect gets a fair chance at the lineup procedure.  Many convictions have been overturned because of faulty lineups and eyewitness identifications, but when law enforcement personal do their jobs to ensure the lineup is not tainted this becomes less of a possibility.


Bennett, W.W., Hess, K.M., & Orthmann, C.M.H. (2007). Criminal Investigation 8th ed.                           Thompson Wadsworth publishing. Belmont, Ca.
Foster, R.E. (2004). Police Technology. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall
Osterburg, J.W. & Ward, R.H. (2007) Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing           the Past (5th ed.) Newark, NJ. Mathew Bender & Company, Inc.

United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 (1967). Retrieved from          http://supreme.justia.com/us/388/218/

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