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Can you trust police lineup results?

On Behalf of | Mar 28, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Every year, police in New Jersey attempt to resolve thousands of cases dealing with crimes. There are numerous tools that help them identify the perpetrators, and the lineup is one that they frequently use.

But it’s an open question as to just how reliable the lineup is and whether a criminal defense can challenge a lineup. While the lineup seems like it would produce accurate results nearly every time, there are some systemic issues with lineups that make them potentially questionable pieces of evidence.

Understanding lineups

Movies and TV shows often feature scenes of a police lineup. The suspect of a crime walks out along with several other people as the witness watches from behind one-way glass. But the truth is that lineups are almost never conducted this way.

In real police work, lineups are nearly always done with photographs. An officer will show a witness pictures of the suspect and generally five other similar-looking people. This is far more convenient and cost-effective than an in-person lineup.

The problems with photo lineups

One of the biggest issues with photo lineups is consistency. In order for a lineup to be unbiased, the police need to try to match the suspect with the other people they show. But in practice, sometimes they fall short in this. Anything from not matching skin color, hair color or facial hair to not matching how close or far away the subject is in the picture can bias the witness.

Yet another potential problem is with the police officer administering the lineup. In a perfect world, the officer giving the lineup doesn’t know which picture is of the suspect. But in practice, this is rarely the case. If the officer knows who the suspect is, they’ll frequently look right at the suspect. This is a clear visual cue that a witness can pick up on, and it can lead to false identifications.

Lineups are a powerful piece of evidence, but there are well-known problems with a lineup’s reliability. There are multiple ways that a lineup can produce a biased or false result.