Police Lineups and Other Identification Situations

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

You've seen it in crime dramas dozens of times. One or more crime suspects, along with a few other people who look vaguely like the suspect(s), are ushered into a room in the police station. Behind the glass in a darkened room -- unseen to the people assembled in a line -- the victim or an eyewitness is asked to identify the perpetrator. This is called a police lineup, and it's one of several methods for identifying a criminal suspect.

Police lineups are considered to be a "critical stage" in the criminal justice process, as they help narrow down suspects. If you're involved in a criminal investigation, you may want to get a handle on how the law regards police lineups and other criminal identification methods.

Police Lineups, Other Identification Methods, and Legal Counsel

The prosecution may not admit into evidence in-court identification of defendants based on out-of-court lineups or show-ups if they were obtained without the presence of defendant's counsel. Courts have found that a defendant's counsel is necessary at a lineup because these lineups provide the potential for both intentional and unintentional errors. Without the defendant's attorney present at the lineup, these errors may not be discovered and remedied prior to trial.

This rule doesn't apply to other methods of obtaining identifications and other evidentiary material relating to the defendant, including:

  • Blood samples;
  • DNA samples;
  • Handwriting samples; and
  • Voice samples.

In these cases, there is far less chance that the absence of counsel at the time the evidence is obtained from the defendant might lead to a misidentification and prevent the defendant from getting a fair trial.

The Sixth Amendment doesn't guarantee the presence of the defendant's counsel at a pretrial proceeding unless the physical presence of the defendant is involved. Furthermore, the defendant's presence must be required at a trial-like confrontation at which the defendant requires the advice and assistance of counsel, which would apply to a police lineup and some other identification procedures.

Police Lineups and the Problem of Misidentification

Eyewitness testimony can be a powerful form of evidence at a trial, but there are many situations where even the most confident eyewitness can mistake the identity of the accused. After all, while observing a crime, an eyewitness often has a very short period of time to observe what's happening, let alone remember specific details of the offender's appearance. In fact, where a weapon is involved, eyewitnesses tend to focus more on the weapon than on the person holding it.

Also, a witness will need to remember what they saw (and not be influenced by their own biases or media reporting about the crime) if they're later called to help law enforcement identify a suspect or to testify in court, which can sometimes be a year or so after the crime took place. Memories can fade or even change with time.

According to the results of one study of inmates later exonerated through DNA testing, 75 percent of their cases involved eyewitness misidentification. Thankfully in those cases, DNA evidence eventually corrected the mistake, but such misidentification can happen whenever the procedures used by law enforcement are not reliable. For example:

  • Police may present a witness with photos or a lineup with only one suspect matching the witness description, so only that individual stands out;
  • The police officer conducting the identification procedure may know the suspect and, intentionally or unintentionally, signal this knowledge to the witness;
  • Police may present photos or a lineup one-by-one instead of side-by-side, making it difficult for a witness to make comparisons and distinctions; and
  • Police may not have a method for determining the witness' confidence level in their identification.

It's precisely concerns over such reliability problems, and their consequences, which created the need for defense counsel in some situations involving witness identifications.

Have Questions About Police Lineups? Talk to an Attorney

If you're facing criminal accusations, you may soon be involved in the criminal justice process and could be facing a police lineup or interrogation. Don't just rely on the authorities to get it right because mistakes can be made even when the police have the best intentions. Make sure that your rights are protected by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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