New Law Requires Law Enforcement To Craft Eyewitness ID Policies

Among the hundreds of new state laws taking effect today is one that aims to change the way police lineups are handled. The idea is to cut down on eyewitness mistakes that can lead to wrongful convictions.

Advocates for the wrongly convicted say as many as 80 percent of criminals who are exonerated ended up behind bars partly because of mistakes from eyewitnesses.  Sometimes, witnesses can be influenced to identify the wrong person by police officers who conduct suspect lineups. 

Local law enforcement departments now have one year to come up with written policies to handle eyewitness information.   Every department can set its own standards. 

Scott Hinson is policy consultant for the Innocence Project of Texas.  He says the group is hoping that departments will adopt certain best practices for eyewitness accounts, but there's no requirement that they do so.  One of those practices is blind administration lineups.

"Blind administration means that the person who's giving the lineup doesn't know which person is the suspect.  So that's easy enough to do in a department of any size by just having a separate detective conduct the lineup."

The Innocence Project wanted the law to include a provision in which juries would be told when police did not use best practices to get a witness to identify a suspect.

But Governor Perry threatened to veto the bill if it did. 

Still, the project's Hinson says any law requiring suspect ID policies is a good start. 

"Just forcing police departments, if 88 percent don't have policies at all, forcing them to think about it, put it in writing, and train on it is a big deal."

Hinson says the Law Enforcement Management Institute at Sam Houston State University will develop a model policy by the end of the year.  Departments will then be free to adopt it, or come up with one of their own. 

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