Eyewitness accounts are considered compelling evidence for persecution in criminal cases. Line-ups or photo arrays are utilized as means of identification. However, there are many psychological and procedural inconsistencies which may result in false testimony. In turn, this leads to wrongful convictions which may be later overturned. Through evaluation and adherence to the eyewitness testimony procedure, it can be ensured that the process serves its purpose without the violation of ethical and constitutional guidelines.
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The primary duty of law enforcement is to serve and protect as an authority in the respective jurisdiction. The concept of justice strongly relies on fairness which must be exhibited through consistency in adherence to principles, law, and procedures. Every action must be impartial as an officer has a responsibility to their duty. In service, one must show initiative, but ready to be held accountable for any lapse of judgment. The identification procedure is one of the initial steps in a criminal case over which law enforcement has some influence.
The concept of fairness is inclusive of showing respect for the people and the law by exhibiting neutrality. Having a position of authority brings the responsibility of self-control to prevent arbitrary abuse (City of Tucson, 2017). With the prevalence of misidentification cases, experts agree, drastic changes must be made to the procedure.
Many police departments across the US do not follow a standard protocol or recommended guidelines during identification procedures, making them unreliable. Accepted methods consist of taking a suspect and placing them amongst other individuals not accused of the particular crime, known as fillers. The eyewitness is then asked to identify visually the person they believe to be the suspect. This can be done via a live line-up or a photographic array. In either method, at least five people are shown. The debate often centers around the pattern of presentation. The simultaneous line-up is most commonly used with everyone revealed at the same time.
Meanwhile, the sequential method presents potential suspects one at a time. During the duration of the procedure, a law enforcement official or administrator is present. In most cases, they are aware who the potential suspect may be. However, a controversial method known as double-blind is being proposed which makes both the officer and the witness unaware of the suspect. In the end, the witness chooses whom they believe to be the suspect and the investigation into the case continues based on that evidence (Schuster, 2007).
There are several issues in the eyewitness identification process. Throughout, law enforcement chooses those participating in the line-up based on descriptions given during testimony. For the procedure to occur, there must be a suspect. However, those in the line-up must possess similar physical characteristics. If any suspect is singled out through a discriminative filler selection, the procedure becomes corrupted.
The presence of the official in the room, who knows the suspect’s identity, is problematic. Due to prejudice, an officer may intentionally or unconsciously reveal the suspect through cues such as implicating dialogue or simple gestures. Suggestive behavior is considered grounds for dismissal of evidence in court. While it is understandable that law enforcement desires a resolution to the crime, it is not their moral right or duty to execute justice.
Witnesses experience psychological stress during this procedure. First, they have recently observed a crime of some sort which is upsetting. Following, witnesses are under pressure or influence to make a selection during a line-up. Since the choice is used as incriminating evidence, most people feel some ethical responsibility. Any reasoning that justifies their decision (such as a police suggestion, since the officer knows the suspect) is mentally accepted (American Psychological Association, 2014). It is the ethical duty of law enforcement to make witness identification impartial and just considering the consequences it may have on people’s lives.
American Psychological Association. (2014). Eyewitness accuracy in police lineups. Web.
City of Tucson. (2017). Mission, values, & law enforcement code of ethics. Web.
Schuster, B. (2007). Police lineups: Making eyewitness identification more reliable. NIJ Journal, 258. Web.