Police Showups v Lineups: Should they be Banned?

Most people reading this blog know the difference between a lineup and a show-up as conducted by law enforcement, but just in case you do not, here’s my definition of each:

  1. police lineup – a procedure where officers present (usually 6) people of similar size, race, hair color, eye color, etc. to a witness and ask the witness to identify the person they believe is the suspect.  This is sometimes done via a presentation of photographs, in which case the photos should all be used from the same source (booking photos of the same age, driver’s license pictures, etc.)
  2. police show-up – This procedure involves the suspects detaining a suspect and presenting him/her to the witness and asking, "That’s the person who did [insert action]"….

The Usual Suspects movie poster.

For anyone who does not see the primary difference between these two methods of identification, consider this:

Show-up procedures are too suggestive, and at least one Texas legislator agrees and wants to change the law to ban the practice in Texas.

Why are they too suggestive?

Well, to begin, there is only one person that the witness is looking at and that person is usually sitting in the back of a patrol car, handcuffed, and surrounded by officers.  The question isn’t typically open-ended but very suggestive–"that’s him" or something of the sort is used by the officers.  And, anyone who is in this position does not look like they normally would… they are terrified, I’m assuming, and may even look physically shaken, not necessarily by the police but just the stress of the ordeal.

So, what can be done without "handcuffing the police" and thus preventing them from doing their jobs, which we all understand their purpose….

Well, Texas Senator Rodney Ellis has proposed that Texas adopt the sequential blind lineup, which was mentioned in the article I linked to above.  But, here’s an excerpt from that article:

The proposed change, known as a sequential blind lineup, requires investigators to present lineup photos one-by-one rather than simultaneously. The investigator who presents the lineup would not be involved in the case and would not know who the true suspect was.

Police officials in Texas have opposed Mr. Ellis’ efforts to make sequential blind procedure mandatory, although they have expressed a willingness to require that police departments have written policies regarding eyewitness identifications. Most departments do not currently have written policies.

I do not have any statistics supporting this move, but my experience in law enforcement and using photographic lineups allows me to understand exactly why people would complain about the process.  While I never suggested to a witness who the suspect was, I saw how the system was riddled with opportunities to suggest who the witness select:

  1. leaving a paperclip on or near the one to be identified;
  2. holding the document in such a way that one or more people are covered;
  3. holding the document in a manner where you are "pointing" at the person you believe committed the crime….

My process was to explain to a witness what was going to happen, hand him or her the manilla folder, and ask, "Is the person you witnessed doing [insert conduct] shown in that folder?" Then, I would hand them the folder and allow them to look.  If they asked questions, I explained that I could not answer them and that they needed to be "certain" of their identification.

Much more information may be obtained about the sequential blind lineup procedure at the Innocence Project website and no, it is not simply a site of "liberals" spouting off about how the current system is broken.  It appears to fairly weigh all the possibilities and pros / cons of the system and those currently in practice.

So for now, Texas continues to take is "maverick" approach to law enforcement and utilize the photographic line-up procedure.  But, here’s to hoping that Senator Ellis is successful in his charge to change the system….