One of the most memorable lines in the 1995 movie, The Usual Suspects, is, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he did not exist.” I am citing this movie for another reason though, specifically, for its depiction of a police line-up in California. What makes the plot of this movie so entertaining is that the band of criminals meet during a police lineup that unsurprisingly nails the wrong guy to the crime.
Eyewitness identifications or police line-ups are a part of the criminal justice system about which people get upset quite often because of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications and the abuse of process that plagues the system. Police line-ups can be photo line-ups or in-person line-ups, such as the one made famous in the movie.
Senate Bill § 923
Beginning next year, on January 1, 2020, the California Penal Code will be amended pursuant to Senate Bill § 923 to require all police and prosecutors in the state to adopt basic rules for phone line-ups and live (in-person) lineups with eyewitnesses. The exact guidelines are still under development. The California legislature however, defined specific parameters and considerations that must be contained in the new procedures.
The rules created and adopted by California law enforcement and state prosecutors are as follows:
- As close in time as the crime is committed, ask the eyewitness for a description of the perpetrator first, before showing the eyewitness any photos or people;
- Prohibit the investigating police officer or detective from knowing who the suspect is or where the suspect is positioned in the line-up, whether photo or in-person;
- Advise the eyewitness that the suspect may or may not be in the line-up, whether photo or in-person, and that he or she should not feel compelled or obligated to make an identification;
- Prohibit the investigating police officer or detective from saying something that could influence the eyewitness’s decision; and
- If the eyewitness is able to make an identification, ask the eyewitness to assess his or her confidence level in the identification, and record the eyewitness’s response word-for-word.
This bill was signed into law by former California governor Jerry Brown and was a part of a series of significant changes to California’s penal code. At the heart of the changes to the line-up procedure is the overwhelming wrongful convictions based on bad eyewitness identifications. By creating a streamlined and uniformed process for conducting police line-ups, the legislature hopes to decrease wrongful convictions based on misidentification of the suspect. Continue reading