Florida Passes New Law on Police Lineups

Historically, a positive eyewitness identification in a police lineup was like the final nail in a coffin; A positive ID during a lineup was bad news for the suspect, especially if the witness seemed very credible to the jury. The California Innocence Project has this to say about the subject: “One of the main causes of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentifications. Despite a high rate of error (as many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong), eyewitness identifications are considered some of the most powerful evidence against a suspect.”

Traditionally, police lineups were grouped into four categories: 1) live lineups, 2) photo lineups, 3) recorded lineups (where the witness was shown the video later), and 4) voice-only lineups where the witness did not see the suspect’s face. However, on April 28, 2017, the Florida Legislature passed new legislation that reformed the state’s eyewitness identification procedures, taking a critical step in preventing the miscarriage of justice and wrongful convictions in Florida.

Senate Bill 312 and House Bill 643, otherwise known as the “Eyewitness Identification Reform Act,” supported by the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Florida, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Florida Sheriffs’ Association, and by criminal defense attorneys throughout the state, was adopted to ensure that law enforcement uses evidence-based practices in police lineups to reduce the prevalence of eyewitness misidentifications.

“One of the most compelling things a jury can hear is an eyewitness identifying a defendant in court, yet all too often the eyewitness gets it wrong,” said Seth Miller, the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida. According to Miller, out of 14 DNA-based exonerations in Florida, nine of those involved eyewitness misidentifications of suspects. “It’s critical that we have uniform best practices bases on scientifically proven eyewitness identification procedures,” Miller said. “Hopefully this will help prevent wrongful convictions.”

According to the Innocence Project the legislation “would require that lineups are conducted using a double-blind or blinded procedure, and witnesses are instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present” as recommended by various organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Photo-Lineup Conductors Can’t Know Suspect’s Identity

In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act, which transformed the way law enforcement conducts its lineups. Under the new law, whoever is conducting a photo or in-person lineup, he or she cannot be aware of which person is the suspect. “On Oct. 1, agencies must either have a person who does not know the suspect’s identity conduct the lineup or use an alternative method” that prevents the lineup administrator from being aware of which photographs are being shown to the eyewitness, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Examples of suggested “alternative methods” include having the eyewitness look at photos in random folders away from the administrator’s sight, and flashing photos on a screen directly in front of the witness.

Under the new law, law enforcement is supposed to tell the witness that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup, and that no one should force them to identify a suspect. They’re also supposed to be told in addition to identifying the perpetrator, it’s equally important to exclude innocent persons from the criminal investigation. Lastly, that the investigation will proceed, with or without the witness's identification.

“If law enforcement does not comply, judges can consider that in deciding motions to suppress eyewitness identification and defendants can use it in arguing cases of misidentification,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.

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