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Departments : Point of Law

Picture Perfect in the Eyes of the Court

Proper procedure and attention to details are the best weapon when obtaining photo identifications.

February 01, 1996  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

If you're lucky enough to have an eye­witness to a crime, and your investigation leads to a possible perpetrator, getting a photo ID is often the next logical step. As with everything else you do, there's the wrong way and the court's way. If a photo ID is obtained the wrong way, tes­timony that the witness picked out the defendant may be inadmissible in court. And if the ID procedure is so "unneces­sarily suggestive" that it taints the wit­ness's ability to recall the suspect accu­rately, the witness might even be prevented from making an in-court ID at trial (Manson v. Brathwaite).

To avoid error, you need to understand the court's rationale for its rulings on the admissibility of ID evidence.

Here it is, in a nut­shell: All trials must be conducted with due pro­cess in order to arrive at a reliable verdict; to reach a reliable verdict. The court admits only reliable evidence. But if police methods suggest to a wit­ness that a particular sus­pect should be selected, and the witness then makes that selection, this is practically a "directed" ID, rather than the wit­ness's independent deci­sion. And that makes it unreliable. Furthermore, the Due Process clause prohibits evidence that was unreliably procured by the govern­ment. As the Supreme Court said in Manson, "Reliability is the linchpin in determining the admissibility of identi­fication testimony."

So when you decide to have a witness try to make a photo ID, you should be careful to avoid suggesting that any particular photo (or any photo at all) depicts the person you believe committed the crime. How do you do that? Follow a few simple guidelines before, during and after you present the photo spread to the witness.

Before the ID

  • Take a detailed description of the suspect from the witness and record it before showing photos.
  • Don't tell the witness that you have a suspect. ("We think we know who did it.") ./ Don't reveal incriminating evi­dence. ("We caught someone with your credit cards.")
  • Don't allow witnesses to compare notes before they see the photo array. Each witness's independent recollection is imperative.
  • Use the most recent photo of the suspect you have.
  • Cover any identifying matter, such as booking boards, handwritten nota­tions, etc. Number or letter each photo for reference.
  • Use a sufficient number of photos so that no single suspect is emphasized (six or more will usually suffice, although fewer photos will sometimes do).
  • Use all color or al] black-and ­white photos.
  • Select photos of persons who gen­erally fit the description previously given by the witness.
  • Try to use photos of the same approximate size, clarity and pose.
  • Do not say or imply to the witness that you believe the suspect is among those pictured.
  • Make photocopies of your array.

During the ID

  • Keep witnesses separated and obtain their independent reactions.
  • Use a simple, neutral admonition:
  • "I'm going to show you some pictures.
  • Please look at all of them carefully, and tell me if you recognize anyone." ,/ If the witness asks you if the sus­pect is in the group, say, "Maybe you can tell me."
  • It is not necessary (and not a good idea) to discourage the witness from making an ID with admonition overkill. Don't say, "It's just as important to eliminate the inno­cent," or "The fact that we're show­ing you pictures doesn't mean the suspect is present," or "You're under no obligation to make an ID." Many witnesses later report that officers talked them out of an ID with such excessive warnings.
  • If two or more perpetrators were involved, compose a separate photo display for each suspect and present them one at a time.
  • If the witness makes an ID, have him or her circle the picture on the photocopy, write down any comments he or she has ("I'm sure it's No.3"), and sign and date the photocopy.
  • Do not ask the witness to quantify his or her degree of cer­tainty with adjectives ("fairly certain") or percentages (''I'm 79 percent sure"). Simply record the witness's honest reaction and words.
  • Do not confirm or dispute the witness's ID. Doing so could influ­ence the reliability of a later in-court ID.
  • The suspect has no right to have his attorney accompany you when you present a photo display to the witness (U.S. 1'. Ash).

After the ID

  • Preserve the display and marked "photocopies" for court.
  • Attach a photocopy to your crime/arrest reports for the prosecu­tor's review.
  • If no ID was made, your sus­pect's photo should not be the only one repeated in any future display to the same witness.

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