A Georgia House of Representatives committee recently approved two pieces of legislation designed to reform police procedures for collecting eyewitness evidence.
The Non-Civil Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 997 and 10 to 5 to approve HR 1071. The legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee for consideration with a favorable recommendation.
The bill, known as the Witness Identification Accuracy Enhancement Act, calls for the state law enforcement agency to develop a set of guidelines for the collection of eyewitness evidence in showups, photo arrays, and live lineups. It also calls on the state public safety training center to work with prosecutors to develop a training program for implementation of the procedures.
The House Resolution outlines specific best practices for conducting the identification procedures. Importantly, the resolution “strongly encourages” double-blind lineup procedures, where the administrator of the lineup would be a “neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup.” This is arguably the most important requirement of the two pieces of legislation, as social scientists are broadly in agreement that the communication of subtle cues — either inadvertent or intentional — to witnesses by lineup administrators regarding the identity of the police suspect is the primary flaw in status quo lineup practices that lead to misidentification, and ultimately wrongful conviction.
The full text of the best practices outline in the resolution are as follows:
(1) It is strongly encouraged that the administrator of a photographic lineup or physical lineup should be a neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(2) Prior to beginning a photographic lineup or physical lineup identification procedure, the administrator should instruct the witness that:
(A) The witness does not have to make an identification, and the identification procedure is important to the investigation whether or not an identification is made;
(B) The individuals depicted in the photographic lineup or physical lineup may not appear exactly as the witness observed on the date of the crime because features such as hairstyles and facial hair are subject to change;
(C) The perpetrator may or may not be among those shown in the photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(D) When a neutral independent administrator is conducting the photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator is not aware of whether the suspect is included in such photographic lineup or physical lineup; and
(E) Regardless of whether an identification is made, law enforcement will continue to investigate the crime; and
(3) When conducting a photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator should preserve the outcome of the procedure by documenting any identification or nonidentification result obtained from a witness. All witness responses to the photographic lineup or physical lineup participants should be documented using the witness´s own words, either in writing or with an audio or video recording.
State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield is the author of this welcome piece of legislation, and has made significant progress in bringing the interested parties together to move it through the legislative process over the last couple of years.
Unfortunately, law enforcement officials continue to resist the resolution, despite the systemic wrongful conviction problem that continues to plague the Georgia criminal justice system.
[Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association] told Committee Members that while the resolution is not legally binding, he still feels the State is dictating to law enforcement what to do.
Given that law enforcement agencies across the state have failed to adopt well-settled best practices on their own and the substantial cost associated with failing to do so, a legislative mandate hardly seems out of line. We’ll be following this one closely.