Protecting Your Legal Rights Since 1994

  1. Home
  2.  » 
  3. Blog
  4.  » The problem with police lineups

The problem with police lineups

Law enforcement in Georgia has a range of tools at their disposal for gathering evidence. One commonly used tool is the lineup, in which a witness attempts to identify a suspect from a group of people.

The police lineup is familiar to anyone who has watched a police or crime TV show or movie. But in real life, lineups are misunderstood in multiple ways. In order to mount a criminal defense, it’s necessary to understand the nature (and limitations) of lineups as evidence.

Common misconceptions about lineups

Probably the biggest misconception the average person has about lineups comes from that TV and movie viewing. We’ve all seen lineups where several people walk out to be inspected by a witness. But in reality, most lineups are conducted with head-and-shoulder view photographs.

Another misconception about lineups is that witnesses are reliable and rarely make errors. In truth, eyewitness testimony is often fraught with mistakes, and witnesses can and do incorrectly pick out innocent people in lineups. This can even lead to criminal convictions on the wrong person.

The problems with lineups

One known issue with photo lineups is that the way the lineup is presented has an effect on the results. Studies have shown that a photo lineup in which all photos are laid out at once results in more false positives than when the images are shown one by one. But the simultaneous display also produces more correct identifications, so many police departments favor it.

Another issue with lineups is that witnesses can be influenced by the body language and eye movements of the officer giving them the lineup. If the officer looks at the picture containing the suspect, this can function as a “clue” that steers the witness toward that picture.

Finally, lineups can be seriously flawed if the police don’t make every effort to closely match the characteristics of the suspect in their other photos. Race and skin tone, hair color, facial hair and many more features need to match, otherwise, the lineup isn’t providing a true test of the witness’s memory.

Police lineups are among the most common techniques for linking a witness with a suspect. But the lineup is far from a perfect process, and there are ways in which bias can creep into the results, potentially causing questionable identifications.