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The Many Pitfalls Associated With Police Lineups

by Ed Lyon 

Anyone who has ever watched a police drama on television is acquainted with the way suspect lineups are supposed to be conducted. The key words here are “supposed to be conducted.”

While many agencies probably conduct lineups properly, the system is subject to manipulation and unfairness in a great many ways. And, where there are openings like this, there are always those who will exploit them. 

Eyewitnesses have been proven time after time to not always be very reliable. Memories are tricky, especially when a person is undergoing a traumatic experience. This presents unscrupulous detectives golden opportunities to subtly manipulate lineups to steer a witness’ attention toward a suspect who cops believe is the perpetrator of a crime. 

Generally, other men or women similar in appearance, age, and size appear in lineups with a suspect for the victim to view. Even then, there was a case in New York City where the suspect was shackled to a chair by his ankle. The chain was positioned in such a way that it was clearly visible to the viewing victim. None of the other lineup participants were shackled to their chairs. 

In another New York City case, the suspect was the sixth man in line. A detective closely resembling the suspect was the fifth man in line. Each participant held a large sign with his number on it in front of his chest. 

The detective held his sign with the index finger of his right hand plainly and clearly extended in order to point toward the suspect situated to the detective’s right. 

Photographic lineups are even more vulnerable to manipulation. In 2009, New York City detectives prepared a photo array for a victim to view. The victim had described the suspect as having facial hair and wearing a hood. The in-custody suspect who detectives had was the only man wearing a hood with facial hair in the photos presented for the victim to view. 

Age differences present a whole other set of problems and headaches. In 2012, detectives used fillers from 21 to 31 years of age with a 14-year-old suspect who was at least 50 pounds lighter in weight than the lineup fillers. In 2018, a 17-year-old suspect found himself in a lineup with two fillers in their twenties and three in their thirties. Some of the fillers outweighed the suspect by 50 pounds or more. In neither case was the lineup conducted in anywhere near a neutral fashion designed to elicit the truth. 

In many cases, fillers for lineups are recruited from homeless shelters, street people, pre-trial jail detainees, and even cops. There are just not many, if any, pre-teens or teenagers among these populations to choose from to assemble a neutral lineup for viewing by victims. 

Lineups are just not that reliable even when done properly and under the best of conditions, yet they continue to serve as a key tool police use on a regular basis to confirm the identification of suspects. There does not appear to be any quick or even long-term fix for them. The one certain thing about lineup identifications is that something must be done to come up with a more reliable method of identification and the sooner the better.  



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