Stricter Standards for Photo Lineups Okayed

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL -- March 29, 2011 --

Florida’s law enforcement agencies would face stricter standards on how to administer photo lineups under a bill approved by a House committee on Tuesday. The proposal is designed to help prevent wrongful convictions, but is opposed by the law enforcement lobby.

“Obviously we don’t want innocent people in prison,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee that considered the bill. “We felt like it was imperative to at least begin to explore this because everybody wants to make sure we get the right people.”

The measure (HB 821) requires law enforcement agencies to administer “blind” lineups by an independent administer who is not involved in the case. The bill was amended Tuesday to allow law enforcement agencies to substitute an independent administrator with photos on a computer program or photos randomly shuffled in manila folders. Most lineups are done through photos, and not in-person, law enforcement officials explained.

The change was a concession to smaller counties who said they lacked the manpower or money to meet the requirements of an independent administrator. The administrator could be another police officer, but it would have to be one with no knowledge of the case and for smaller counties that becomes a burden, law enforcement officials argued.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, also requires whomever administers the lineup to provide disclaimers designed to ensure the eyewitness doesn’t feel pressure to pick a particular person.

The disclaimers include:

-A warning to the eyewitness that the suspect may not be in the lineup

-The eyewitness does not have to identify someone

-That it is important to exclude innocent people as well as identify who is responsible

-The investigation will continue with or without the identification of a suspect.

If a police official does not follow this protocol, a jury or judge could take that into consideration when determining whether the eyewitness can be relied upon to identify the right suspect.

Law enforcement agencies objected to the bill on Tuesday, saying they are already designing guidelines that would require similar protocols. The bill could complicate the convictions of people already in prison. If police did not follow this stricter standard in their case, it could open the door for an appeal, law enforcement officials said.

“Don’t mandate one type of method,” Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron told the committee. “…You don’t want to open the door to challenges for people who are currently sitting in prison.”

Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe called the bill unnecessary.

“Law enforcement agencies are competent and professional,” McAuliffe said. “It’s a much different landscape than it was 20 years ago. Allow law enforcement to take ownership of (lineups) and not overshoot the runway.”

Proponents of the bill include state public defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project of Florida, which works towards overturning wrongful convictions.

According to a study of eyewitness reliability, out of 267 wrongful convictions nationwide, 75 percent were caused by witness misidentification. Melissa Montle, an attorney with the Innocence Project of Florida, said there have been 12 DNA-based exonerations in Florida, with three resulting from an eyewitness picking the wrong suspect.

“All three have been compensated by the state of Florida at a cost of $3.2 million,” Montle said.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed a similar measure (SB 1206) on Monday, despite objections of law enforcement officials. The main difference between the two is the Senate version sets a stricter standard by requiring an independent administrator. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Port St. Lucie.

Coincidentally, on Tuesday the Senate Rules Committee gave preliminary approval to a payment of $810,000 to William Dillon, a Brevard County man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 27 years in prison. He was convicted, in part, from an eyewitness who wrongly identified him.


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