Innocence Commission endorses bill addressing police photo lineups
The Florida Innocence Commission voted this week to support a bill proposed by state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm Beach, which aims to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the state by mandating new minimum standards for police photo lineups.
Supporters argue that witness mistakes in identifying suspects account for 75 percent of the 267 cases of DNA exonerations nationwide — including 12 so far in Florida — and the measures outlined in Senate Bill 1206 will remove the possibility of coercion, however subtle or unintended, by law enforcement officers when conducting a photographic lineup.
The legislation would impose a “double blind” standard for state law enforcement agencies, which according to Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, would eliminate any possibility of suggestion by agents familiar with a potential suspect.
“The real problem comes when the person who is administering the lineup is the same person who prepared it, because obviously they know who law enforcement’s known suspect is so it’s not double blind,” says Miller. “If people are going to act in bad faith, there’s nothing that can stop them. But this law is actually intended to address the problem when everybody is acting in good faith. When you have a law enforcement officer who knows who the suspect is, they are going to give inadvertent cues to the witness even when they’re not trying to.”
He also noted that nine of the 12 cases of DNA exoneration that his organization has worked on in Florida were due to witness misidentifcation stemming from the lack of a double blind standard in addition to other procedural issues that are addressed by Negron’s “Eyewitness Identification” bill.
In the case of Alan Crotzer, who spent more than 24 years in prison before being released after DNA evidence proved his innocence, multiple witnesses were involved in a lineup simultaneously, and were shown an individual picture of Crotzer separate from the standard “six-pack” of photos witnesses are usually presented with.
Witnesses in the wrongful conviction case of James Bain, who spent over 35 years in a Florida prison, were presented with a high school photo of Bain alongside mugshots of “filler” suspects and easily stood out.
“What the science has shown is that the sequential double blind method for misidentifications is the most reliable method,” Miller says. “It’s been studied in a scientific setting, and it proves that out. The great thing about these procedures is that they’re not only going to obviously prevent misidentifications, but they’re really going to strengthen prosecutions. They are going to make it harder for defense attorneys to challenge identifications and help convictions hold up in court.”
The legislation would also replace the “six-pack” line up method, requiring instead that witnesses be shown photos individually. In addition, law enforcement agencies would have to inform those involved in the lineups that the suspect may not be present and that they are not required to make an identification.
“This commission was set up to do something bold,” Negron told commissioners. “I think it’s our job to totally transform the way we do lineups in this state.”
He gave a stirring firsthand account of defending a man who had been falsely convicted.
“There is a time and a place for everything,” Negron said. “I would rather stop convicting innocent people by July of this year.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recently unveiled its own internal standards, which do not call for the institution of a double blind method in photo lineups, and has raised concerns about having to comply with new laws they claim will be restrictive and costly to implement.
Alternatives to the double blind method have been outlined in the legislation, geared towards agencies with smaller budgets or staffs, and include using a computer to present the photo lineups or simply placing pictures into folders which can be shuffled and shown to witnesses in an order not known to the administrating officer.
The Florida Innocence Commission was established last year by the Florida Supreme Court to study wrongful convictions, and the endorsement of Negron’s bill is its first major decision.