Under Georgia law, the testimony of a single witness is sufficient to sustain a conviction (assuming the jury believes that witness). But, prosecutions based entirely or primarily on the testimony of a single eyewitness are said to be the most common cause of wrongful convictions.
This article will discuss the different types of identification procedures, factors that influence the precision of eyewitness identifications, case law dictating how and when a judge should filter out inherently suggestive procedures, and constitutional considerations regarding suppression of unduly suggestive identifications.
Types of Identification Techniques
O.C.G.A. § 17-20-2 provides that any law enforcement agency that conducts lineups shall adopt written policies for using such lineups.
A live lineup consists of a row of 6 people, including the suspect. The witness is then asked to identify the suspect. Typically, these live lineups are done at the jail and inmates are used to fill the lineup. Someone who does not know the identity of the suspect conducts the lineup. The administrator is supposed to instruct the witness the perpetrator may or may not be present in the lineup. The lineup should be composed so the fillers generally resemble the witness’ description of the suspect. The lineup is to consists of at least four fillers. The administrator is supposed to document the witness’ statement as to their confidence level in their identification.
A suspect in custody may be forced to participate in a lineup because showing one’s physical characteristics is not considered “testimonial” for 5th Amendment purposes. U.S. v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 (1967). If an in-custody suspect refuses to participate, the prosecutor may comment upon this refusal at a later trial. If a suspect is not in custody, court intervention may be required (upon proof of reasonable and articulable suspicion or probable cause). Importantly, an in custody suspect does NOT have the right to the presence of counsel at a lineup as these procedures occur prior to the formal initiation of charges. Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U.S. 682 (1972).
A show-up is any identification procedure that provides the eyewitness with only one choice. Although a show-up identification is inherently suggestive, it is not necessarily inadmissible. So long as a show-up is reasonably and fairly conducted at or near the time of offense, it will not be deemed impermissibly suggestive. Wallace v. State, 295 Ga. App. 452 (2009). A timely show-up aids in a speedy police investigation, especially in an emergency situation.
Also called “photo arrays,” these lineups consist of 6 photographs (including the suspect’s) displayed together to the witness and are conducted prior to the arrest of the suspect. After all, if the suspect is in custody a live lineup is preferred. Some law enforcement agencies present the photos to witnesses one at a time as an added layer of protection to the suspect so the witness will not just choose the photo most resembling the suspect. In a photo lineup the administrator is not supposed to know who the suspect, or, if they do know, use photos placed in folders which are randomly shuffled so the administrator doesn’t know who the witness is looking at until the procedure is complete. The administratior should tell the witness the suspect may or may not be in the photo lineup, use a minimum of five fillers, use fillers resembling generally the witness’ description of the suspect, and document statement of witness’s confidence in identification.
Again, suspects do not have the right to presence of counsel during a photo lineup because the preservation and documentation of the photo lineup is sufficient to protect suspect’s right to challenge the procedure.
At trial, an eyewitness is typically asked to identify the defendant in the courtroom (where they are sitting and what article of clothing they are wearing). A prosecutor is not allowed to ask a witness whether anyone in the courtroom resembles the perpetrator because this causes the witness to search for similarities.
Factors Affecting Accuracy of Identification
Identifications can be influenced by “estimator” and “system” variables. Estimator variables relate to the person making the identification: witnesses perceptive abilities, memory, and environmental factors. System variables include: method of ID (live lineup, photo array, show-up), how identification procedure was administered.
A pre-trial identification procedure will be suppress on Due Process grounds if such procedure:
- Is deemed to have been “impermissibly suggestive,” and
- Posed a “very substantial likelihood of misidentification.”
Carr v. State, 289 Ga. App. 875 (2008). An identification procedure is impermissibly suggestive if it would lead an eyewitness to an all but inevitable identification of the suspect. Russell v. State, 288 Ga. 372 (2007). In determining whther a “very substantial likelihood of misidentification” is present courts look to factors articulated in Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972).
- Opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime
- The witness’ degree to attention
- The accuracy of the witness’ prior description of the accused
- The level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the time of confrontation
- The length of time between crime and confrontation
Both the eyewitness’ pre-trial identification and in-court identification are admissible unless the defendant shows the identification fails to satisfy both prongs of the due process test.
If you or someone you know has been arrested, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.