Innocence Project Attorney: Holding Law Enforcement Accountable – Agencies Must Update Eyewitness Identification Practices to Prevent False Convictions 

By Kaylynn C. and Shaolien C. 

LOS ANGELES, CA – In an opinion piece published by the LA times, attorney Todd Fries argued California law enforcement has failed to update its handling of eyewitness testimony despite the passing of identification reform legislation in recent years.

Fries, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, charged “dozens of people across California have been wrongly convicted of crimes largely because of law enforcement officers’ flawed handling of eyewitness evidence.”

Fries points to several clients of the Northern California Innocence Project— Franky Carrillo, Jr., Miguel Solorio, and Joaquin Ciria—whom he states were “wrongfully incarcerated for 20, 25, and 32 years respectively…all three are men of color who couldn’t overcome wrongly obtained, false eyewitness identifications at trial.”

The LA Times Op-Ed adds the project has achieved “eyewitness identification reforms” within state legislature in response to instances where evidence in court concerning eyewitnesses came from identifications that occurred when the perpetrator is not present in a lineup, or from shaky testimonies that were masked and presented as compelling evidence during trials.

Fries explains his colleagues at the Northern California Project “rejoiced” when these reforms were adopted into the state legislature six years ago because now the law “requires police to use evidence-based practices in handling witness testimonies,” adding the law is “based on decades of scientific research into the causes of inaccurate and unreliable eyewitness testimony” and is aimed at preventing the incarceration of innocent people.

Fries noted since 2020, California law now requires police to conduct double blind lineups in which the administrators do not have information on the suspect’s identity; tell eyewitnesses that the culprit might not even be in the lineup; make clear that the investigation will not be reliant on whether or not they give an identification; take note of the confidence level of the eyewitness’s testimony; use photos that fall in line with the eyewitness’s description; and record the entire identification procedure.

However, Fries states in his LA Times article their confidence in the project and reforms has been waning “considerably since they (the reforms) were put in place.” He claims that “while the state’s police departments have generally acknowledged their obligations under the new law, many are failing to comply with it.”

Fries points to a study led by the Northern California Innocence Project that “found that only 49 percent of the agencies examined were using admonishment forms that contained all of the legally required lineup instructions” and that “most of the remaining agencies were using the same forms they had used since at least 2010, with no changes to reflect the 2018 law.”

Moreover, the Op-Ed describes the role of Lexipol— “a for-profit company that produces most California police departments’ policy manuals” —which has created the police’s eyewitness identification policy.

Fries argues usage of words such as “shall” to replace “should” suggests the required practices are not mandatory along with claiming that Lexipol’s policy “wrongly implies that witness’ identifications don’t always have to be recorded” all in an attempt to downplay police misconduct.

Fries admits, “It’s true that police departments bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that their policies and practices comply with the law, and Lexipol notes that contracting agencies are free to review and modify their master manuals.”

However, Fries states his research found that 90 percent of law enforcement agencies that use Lexipol’s policy have adopted the same policies the company had made regarding eyewitness identification policy. As a result, Fries argues, “Lexipol should change the flawed language in its policy to ma​​ke it clear that these practices are mandatory.”

To prevent cases such as those of Franky Carrillo, Jr., Miguel Solorio, and Joaquin Ciria from happening to other innocent people, Fries in his LA Times Op-Ed said law enforcement agencies should comply with new eyewitness policies because “preventing tragic eyewitness mistakes and wrongful convictions depends on police following this law.”

In closing, Fries remarks that “nothing less than full compliance with the law will protect the next innocent person from going to prison.”

About The Author

Kaylynn Chang is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley looking to major in Legal Studies with a strong interest in criminal justice and judicial law. Having years of experence with journalism and leading a publication, she loves to look for the stories of her community, focusing on the hidden voices and intriguing tales of people. She hopes to attend law school in the future, but for now she is looking to gain experience and experiment with her path. A passionate creator, a cafe connoisseur, and a library enthusiast, Kaylynn is always looking for small adventures along with accomplishing big goals.

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