Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: email@example.com
Texas law enforcement agencies will be required to take more stringent steps to maintain the integrity of police lineups under legislation that is nearing final approval from the state legislature.
This week, the Texas House passed HB 215, which would require law enforcement agencies to adopt written procedures for both in-person and photo-based police lineups. The bill is designed to make it less likely that eyewitnesses make mistakes when they identify suspects.
Those mistakes are the leading cause of wrongful imprisonment, according to the The Innocence Project, which seeks to overturn false convictions. Nationwide, 267 prisoners have been exonerated due to DNA evidence, and in about 80 percent of those cases, the wrongfully convicted prisoners were sent away, in part, due to eyewitness error.
In Texas, the mistakes are even more prevalent. Thirty-eight of the 44 exonerations were due to false IDs by witnesses.
Despite the extent of the problem, just 12 percent of Texas law enforcement agencies have written procedures for how to conduct police lineups, according to the state legislature’s research organization. The legislation requires agencies to write policies on lineups that reduce the risk of false IDs. The policies must address issues such as the type of instructions witnesses receive and how lineups will be administered to witnesses who speak little English. The state Senate has already passed a similar bill.
"Eyewitness reform is a very simple, straightforward change to help create a smarter, more just system," State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the Senate bill, said in a statement.
Under the bill, a law enforcement institute at Sam Houston State University is required to develop a model policy that departments may adopt. Police departments would be required to adopt that policy -- or create their own -- by Sept. 1, 2012.
Advocates for reforming lineups say the best systems are “double-blind,” similar to how clinical trials of pharmaceuticals are conducted. The officer administering the lineup wouldn’t know which individual in the lineup is the suspect, which would prevent him from inadvertently steering a witness toward a particular ID. The eyewitness, meanwhile, wouldn’t know if the actual suspect was even among the people presented.
Additionally, the individuals in the lineup would be presented sequentially and not all at once, as is the norm.
Source: National Institute of Justice. Article continues below.
Critics of the bill say it doesn’t go far enough, since it lacks a strong enforcement mechanism. During a criminal trial, attorneys will be allowed to tell jurors whether a department is complying with a written lineup policy. But failure to comply won't bar the admission of eyewitness testimony. .
Scott Henson, a lobbyist for the Texas Innocence Project, says it’s disappointing the bill lacks strong enforcement. “There were forces deferential to prosecutor and law enforcement interests that wanted to keep this from being strong, and this is what we were able to get,” Henson says.
But, he adds, he is still optimistic about the bill. Requiring agencies to create written policies will force them to think about the eyewitness process, which in itself will help to reduce errors.
“It does a lot to change police practices on the ground,” Henson says. “The lack of a remedy is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mitigate the importance of the bill.”
Texas is also considering legislation, SB 122, that would grant post-conviction DNA testing if biological evidence from the case hadn’t previously been tested, or newer techniques might be more accurate.
The reforms are among those recommended by Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, a state panel tasked with reducing the number of wrongfully convicted defendants in Texas. The panel is named for a student who was wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape and died in prison while services a 25-year sentence. Last year, he became the first person posthumously pardoned in state history.
See how various jurisdictions are implementing lineup reform.
View How States Are Addressing Lineup Reform in a full screen map
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.