Why police lineups are so unreliable and how they can be changed

This article looks at why police lineups are so unreliable and what can be done to improve them.

The police lineup is a classic scene out of most detective movies and television shows. In real life too, the police lineup plays a major role in many criminal investigations and they can prove very persuasive on jurors and judges. However, a growing body of research suggests that police lineups may be extremely unreliable and their unreliability may have sent a number of innocent people to prison. Below is a look at why police lineups are so problematic and what can be done to address the issue.

Witnesses easily swayed

The problem with police lineups is that the witness is often provided subtle, even unconscious clues about which suspect to pick by the police officers themselves. As Science Magazine points out, police officers who are investigating the crime are also usually the ones who are conducting the police lineup. As a result, they may provide subtle, if unintentional, cues to the witness about which suspect they consider to be the “right” one.

That positive identification can then send police trying to build a case against that one suspect instead of looking for other possible suspects. That was the case in a 1999 case in Kansas in which the positive identification of one suspect led police to seek out other witnesses who would also make a similar identification. As the Kansas City Star reports, the suspect, it turned out, never committed the crime in question, but the weight of all the eyewitness testimony against him was enough to send him to prison before he was exonerated thanks to DNA evidence 17 years later.

How to improve the lineup

Indeed, DNA evidence is why the reliability of eyewitnesses and police lineups have gained more attention in recent years. In fact, nationwide a full 71 percent of convictions that were later overturned thanks to DNA evidence were originally convicted largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Jurors and judges were often swayed by how confident eyewitnesses claimed to be, but recent research suggests that “confidence” in one’s recollection is no guarantee of factual accuracy.

Because human memory is so imperfect and because eyewitnesses are so perceptible to hints and suggestions being dropped by police officers, critics say that the opportunity for human error during the police lineup needs to be reduced. One way of doing that would be to make sure that the officer conducting the lineup is not actually involved in the investigation itself. Another suggestion is to remove officers from the room entirely and allow eyewitnesses to make their identification solely through a computer screen.

Criminal defense help

Anybody who has been charged with a criminal offense needs to get in touch with a defense attorney as soon as possible. A conviction could result in serious consequences, including prison, as well as a criminal record that could make finding a job or a place to live extremely difficult for years to come. An experienced defense attorney can help clients mitigate the harm caused by a criminal charge and/or conviction and fight to uphold clients’ rights and freedoms.