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Minnesota Legislature

Bill would mandate how cops conduct photo lineups

Rep. Dave Pinto answers a question Monday in the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division regarding his bill, HF627. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The photo lineup is a staple of crime dramas on television and in the movies, where a victim is asked to point out the perp.

But photo lineups in real life are not as simple as portrayed on the big or little screen. When they are not done carefully, the results can be thrown out of court – or used to convict an innocent person.

New rules on how law enforcement would need to conduct photo lineups are spelled out in HF627, sponsored by Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul). He said the four requirements in the bill are based on recommendations in a 2014 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

The bill, as amended, was laid over Monday by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division for possible omnibus bill inclusion. Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) sponsors the companion, SF1256, which is awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

The bill would require the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board to develop a model policy outlining best practices for eyewitness identification. The board is responsible for licensing the more than 10,500 active peace officers in the state.

The bill would mandate that the board’s policy must require that:

  • the person administering a lineup be unaware of the suspect or be unaware of which lineup member is being viewed;
  • the witness be given introductory instructions including the statement that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup;
  • the lineup include “fillers” that match the description of the suspect; and
  • the witness give a statement that articulates the level of confidence in the identification.

A fifth recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences report, that there should be a video recording of the identification process, is not included.

Law enforcement agencies statewide would need to adopt standards developed by the POST board by Feb. 1, 2020.

“Law enforcement needs to conduct these lineup procedures using the best methods possible,” said Julie Jonas, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota.

“It is crucial that law enforcement gets the right person in the first place,” Jonas said. Because when a person is wrongly convicted, she said, the real perpetrator remains free, endangering public safety.

Mistaken eyewitness identifications played a role in 71 percent of the nation’s first 350 DNA-based cases that exonerated wrongly convicted people, Jonas said.

The National Academy of Sciences report is “based on sound science,” said Nancy Steblay, a psychology professor at Augsburg University who specializes in the reliability of eyewitness identification and eyewitness evidence procedures.

There are thousands of psychology studies, both in the lab and in the field, showing that eyewitness recollections can be unreliable in many instances, she testified. Law enforcement investigators must therefore take the upmost care to ensure that eyewitness identifications are made in a manner to reduce that unreliability as much as possible, Steblay said.

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