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Mistaken Eyewitness Identification

Mistaken Identification in Criminal Cases

Mistaken eyewitness identification is when the victim of a crime or an eyewitness mistakenly identifies somebody as the perpetrator of a crime even though they didn't commit the crime. Put simply, the witness identifies the wrong person.

In some cases, police misconduct, such as aggressive and unethical suggestions during a criminal investigation, can cause misidentification. In other cases, the victim or witness made an honest mistake. Mistaken identification is made even worse when it becomes lodged in the mind of an eyewitness.

Mistaken Eyewitness Identification
Mistaken identification by an eyewitness or the victim is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

Misidentification is essentially an error or incorrectly identifying someone. If witnesses make this mistake early in the criminal process, such as a photo lineup, they often mentally convince themselves they have correctly identified the right person. In other words, it becomes lodged in their minds, and they will continue to identify the same person mistakenly.

Eyewitness testimony in a trial can be among the most convincing and intense types of testimony that you will hear. When someone witnesses a traumatic event, such as the commission of a crime, it would be logical to think that the person would remember things clearly.

Indeed, a witness is not expected to remember minute details, but the witness should be able to identify at least who was there, right? Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Mistaken eyewitness identification has led to countless false convictions and people being identified as committing crimes that they did not commit. Erroneous identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

A high number of cases overturned through DNA testing involved some error made by an eyewitness. In this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers, we will discuss this topic in more detail below.

Mistaken Witness Identification Explained

Mistaken witness identification involves a witness incorrectly pointing out an individual as the person who committed a crime when that person is innocent. This happens even when the witness attempts to tell the truth about what they witnessed.

Modern-day DNA evidence has overturned many wrongful convictions based on what was later determined to be mistaken witness identification. These may be honest mistakes on the part of a witness, but they also occur when the witness has some reason they believe that this individual committed the criminal act.

In some cases, an individual's local reputation can result in them being identified as someone who committed a particular crime when they are, in fact, innocent.  Misidentification could happen during any of the following situations:

  • Police lineups where a witness is shown a group of people;
  • Photo lineup where a witness is shown a group of pictures;
  • Court identifications where a witness is asked to ID the perpetrator in court;
  • Showups where the police show a witness someone near a crime scene;
  • Voice lineups where police ask a witness to listen to different voices.

What Are Some Factors that Lead to Mistaken Witness ID?

Many factors can lead to mistakenly identifying an individual as committing a crime. One major factor is suggestive behavior by the police or prosecutor.

Factors that Lead to Mistaken Witness ID
A primary factor for mistaken identification is suggestive behavior by police detectives.

If the police or prosecutor communicate verbally or nonverbal to the crime victim about who they should pick as the perpetrator, they act suggestively.

When the crime victim is asked to identify who harmed them, they can be asked to look at in-person lineups, photo arrays, and showups. In-person lineups are similar to what you see on television and in movies, where several individuals are lined up next to each other, and the victim has to pick out who harmed them.

Photo arrays are simply a set of photographs of individuals, and the victim is asked to pick out the individual that harmed them.

It is essential that the individuals in an in-person lineup or photo array are roughly the same size, build, and race so it doesn't suggest who the victim should choose. Voice recognition makes some identifications, which can also be difficult for the victim and lead to mistakes.

What Types of Law Exist to Prevent Mistaken ID?

State and federal statutes and case laws aim to prevent mistaken witness identification from leading to false convictions. The United States Constitution offers protection within the due process clause and the right to a fair trial. Article I, Section 15 of the California Constitution protects mistaken eyewitness identification.

Further, defendants have a Sixth Amendment constitutional right to have their criminal defense lawyer present at pretrial lineups.

Expert witnesses can also be called to explain the science behind mistaken witness identification and how the victim in the current case is not necessarily wrong about being a victim but is wrong about who victimized them.

In California, a judge can order an Evans lineup which results in a new in-person lineup being conducted due to potential mistakes in the previous lineup and identification.

What Are Some Ways to Protect Against Mistaken Identification?

It is unlikely that you will be able to prevent someone from mistaking you for committing a crime unless you have a strong alibi defense or video that proves that you did not commit the crime alleged. If you are a victim of mistaken witness identification, then the defense that you pursue in your case will be specific to your facts and circumstances.

You may have to enlist an expert witness to help explain how and why you are being wrongfully accused of committing a crime. A thorough cross-examination can lead to a witness realizing that they might not have seen the perpetrator.

What Is Some Other Related Content? 

What Do the Jury Instructions Say?

The California Criminal Jury Instructions at CALCRIM 315 inform a jury that they must decide whether or not an eyewitness gave accurate testimony. The instructions ask the jury to consider several questions about the ability of the witness to see the alleged perpetrator and how good of a description they gave.

If the witness ever failed to identify the defendant, the jury should consider that when deciding. The certainty of the witness must also be considered. Still, mistaken identification continues to be a significant issue leading to wrongful convictions in California criminal cases.

California Criminal Jury Instructions 315
A jury is responsible for deciding whether an eyewitness or the victim gave accurate testimony

The memories of victims and witnesses are not perfect, and good-faith mistakes are made. Police detectives are also not perfect and often under pressure to solve a case. They take shortcuts by giving witnesses unethical suggestions that lead to the wrong person being identified as someone who committed a crime.

If you were charged with a crime and believe you might be a victim of mistaken identification, contact our law firm to review all the details. We might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor to show them reasonable doubt persuading them to reduce or dismiss the charges.

Further, suppose we are retained early in the case process. In that case, it might be possible to negotiate with law enforcement detectives and the District Attorney to convince them from filing formal criminal charges.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County, and we represent people throughout Southern California. You can contact our law firm for an initial case review by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

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