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The emergent spotlight on police lineups: California developments

“There’s no question, we just didn’t know any better back then.”

So says a police chief in one state who now acknowledges the shortcomings in many police lineups that have unquestionably led to legions of wrongly identified suspects over the years.

Those defects have been both multiple and material. Maybe a police officer standing beside an eyewitness silently mouths a swear word when attention turns to suspect number three. Perhaps the witness sees that officer pay sudden attention and nudge an associate expectantly when the spotlight turns to the fifth person in line. Certain comments – even leading questions – might be interjected.

The bottom line: Any number of subjective cues might influence an eyewitness – and result in the wrongful incarceration of an innocent individual.

We noted that in our immediately preceding blog post, stressing in our July 24 entry that police lineups have come under strong scrutiny in recent years in states all across the country.

That includes California, where legislators are currently reviewing a bill to reform and standardize lineup processes and procedures in police departments throughout the state.

Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) is the sponsor of that would-be law. Weiner says that many lineups presently “encourage people to make inaccurate identifications,” and that radical reform is an imperative for securing higher levels of justice.

Weiner’s stance is solidly echoed in legislatures nationally, with states progressively entering into various stages of reform. Reportedly, police departments in about half of all states now embrace updated lineup policies aimed at eliminating subjectivity and less-than-certain eyewitness judgments concerning guilt.

Despite its clear reformist bent and focus on enhanced accuracy, the California bill is not unanimously endorsed. One recent national article discussing trending changes in lineup considerations and strategy notes resistance to the bill posed by the California Police Chief’s Association. Among other complaints, that group stresses that new law would reduce important discretion at local police levels and introduce new costs that might be prohibitively high to bear.

We’ll keep readers well apprised of any California-centric developments that occur regarding criminal lineup policies.

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