Since 1989, experts estimate that nearly 200 people have been wrongly convicted in California. According to the Innocence Project, mistaken eyewitness identification played a role in over 70 percent of convictions which were later overturned by DNA testing.
“This represents one of the most flagrant injustices plaguing our nation’s judicial system,” the ACLU argued in a recent release.
“Racial bias — both implicit and explicit — contributes to people being misidentifed in a lineup. Innocent people have spent decades behind bars for no reason. Even if the conviction is eventually overturned, the consequences of the experience can last a lifetime,” they add.
SB 923 would require that police throughout the state of California adhere to evidence-based standards during eyewitness identifications, which have been proven to improve accuracy and reliability.
Introduced back in January by San Francisco-area Senator Scott Wiener and Marin County Assemblymember Mark Levine, SB 923 sets statewide eyewitness identification standards to help prevent misidentifications that lead to innocent people being convicted and actual perpetrators remaining free.
Nationally, eyewitness misidentification is the leading contributor to convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence. In California, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, eyewitness misidentification played a role in 15 out of 23 DNA-related exonerations in the state. Currently there is no statewide standard for best practices governing eyewitness identification, though some law enforcement agencies in counties like Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Clara have adopted some of the recommended procedures for best practices.
SB 923 adopts evidence-based procedures that have been endorsed by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, the National Academy of the Sciences, the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, and the International Association of Police Chiefs to improve the way in which eyewitness identifications are conducted throughout the state.
“A fair and equitable justice system must have the strongest policies in place to ensure that we correctly identify people who commit crimes,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “Eyewitness misidentifications not only lead to the conviction of innocent people, but the actual perpetrator also remains free, which is a danger for public safety. Requiring evidence-based standards for eyewitness identifications will help keep innocent people out of jail while still allowing public safety officials to do their jobs.”
“This glaring flaw in the justice system must be addressed,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine. “We cannot allow innocent people to be placed behind bars while perpetrators continue to endanger the public. We need to rely on science-based methods to ensure these injustices cannot continue.”
The core pillars required under SB 923 are:
- Blind/Blinded Administration: Blind/blinded administration of procedures prevents suggestiveness. In a blind lineup the officer administering the procedure is unaware of the suspect’s identity. If that is not practical, a “blinded technique” can be used such as the folder shuffle method in which the suspect and filler photographs are placed in separate folders, shuffled and handed to the eyewitness one at a time.
- Eyewitness Instructions: Prior to the procedure, eyewitnesses should be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup.
- Proper Use of Fillers: Non-suspect “fillers” used in the lineup should match the witness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not noticeably stand out.
- Confidence Statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his or her own words, that articulates the level of confidence in the identification.
- Recording: The entire identification procedure is videotaped.
Back in May, the Senate approved the Measure by a 24 to 8 vote.
SB 923 is sponsored by the California Innocence Coalition and the ACLU of California.
“The need for eyewitness identification reform is non-partisan and non-adversarial,” said the California Innocence Coalition. “Eyewitness identifications are important to securing rightful convictions, but when they are improperly obtained it is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. All sides of justice should want to adopt the best practices as another step towards improving our criminal justice system and ensuring innocent people are not wrongly incarcerated.”
“Wrongful convictions are one of the most devastating blights plaguing our justice system – affecting those wrongly convicted and survivors who turn to our legal system seeking justice, as well as society, which relies on this system to ensure overall community safety,” said Kathy Sher, Legislative Advocate with the ACLU of California. “By establishing long-overdue best practices for eyewitness identification, SB 923 will help protect the integrity of our justice system and promote safety.”
In May, the ACLU stated, “Wrongful convictions represent some of the most flagrant injustices plaguing our judicial system to date, with mistaken eyewitness identifications playing a significant and alarming role in the conviction of innocent people.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting