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Every law enforcement agency in Virginia should bring the same professionalism to conducting unbiased police lineups.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
If you end up in a police lineup somewhere in Virginia for a crime you didn’t commit, how confident can you be that you won’t mistakenly be identified by the victim or an eyewitness?
If you’re in Roanoke, you at least could feel assured the deck won’t be stacked against you, even inadvertently, by investigators. In some localities, maybe not.
Not all police agencies have incorporated the state’s best-practices model into their procedures for administering photo and in-person lineups. For example, double-blind lineups — conducted by officers with no knowledge of which person is under suspicion — can eliminate the chance that witnesses will pick up on subtle cues from investigators, intended or not.
Improper procedures increase the risk of mistaken identifications, which can lead in turn to wrongful convictions, which serve no one well — victim, suspect or society. An unknown perpetrator remains at large.
Two years ago, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services adopted a model policy — mindful that 13 of 16 men wrongly convicted in Virginia of rapes and murders, and later proved innocent by DNA evidence, had been mistakenly identified by witnesses during police lineups.
Most police agencies still have not incorporated the model into their written policies, though. In fact, many still have not adopted written policies at all, though doing so has been a state law since 2005.
A bill in the 2011 General Assembly would have required all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt the model policy. But small, rural departments objected that with so few officers, they would be hard-pressed to find one to administer lineups who had no knowledge of an investigation. Lawmakers declined to act.
They need to remedy that next year.
The Department of Criminal Justice Services has outlined a photo lineup option for small departments — to put photos in folders and shuffle them, then allow witnesses, but not the officer, to look at them.
Whether lineups are scrupulously fair should not depend on where a suspect happens to be when arrested. The possibility of a false arrest and even a wrongful conviction is not so far-fetched as people would like to think. DNA has proven that.
No procedure can eliminate the potential for human error. But practices shown to minimize it should be required for justice’s sake.
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