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Bill would set new standards for eyewitnesses to crimes in CA

by Seth Hemmelgarn

State Senator Scott Wiener. Photo: Rick Gerharter
State Senator Scott Wiener. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Two California legislators recently announced a bill that would set statewide standards for eyewitness identification in order to help prevent innocent people from being convicted of crimes.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin County) introduced Senate Bill 923 last Wednesday, January 24.

Citing the National Registry of Exonerations, the lawmakers say that in California, eyewitness misidentification contributed to 15 out of 23 DNA-related exonerations. San Francisco and other counties have adopted some procedures for best practices, but there is no statewide standard governing eyewitness identification best practices. SB 923 adopts evidence-based procedures that the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, and other organizations have endorsed.

In a news release, Wiener said, "A fair and equitable justice system must have the strongest policies in place to ensure that we correctly identify people who commit crimes. Eyewitness misidentifications not only lead to the conviction of innocent people, but the actual perpetrator also remains free ... . Requiring evidence-based standards for eyewitness identifications will help keep innocent people out of jail while still allowing public safety officials to do their jobs."

Levine stated, "We cannot allow innocent people to be placed behind bars while perpetrators continue to endanger the public. We need to rely on science-based methods to ensure these injustices cannot continue."

Among other provisions, SB 923 would call on authorities to instruct eyewitnesses that the perpetrator may or may not be included in the lineup; encourage the use of non-suspect "fillers" in lineups that match witness descriptions of perpetrators and ensure suspects don't stand out; and have the entire identification procedure videotaped.

In a statement to the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said, "Virtually every case study has shown that eyewitness misidentification has put more innocent people behind bars than any other factor. I support SB 923 because it codifies the evidence-based practices used by the police in San Francisco and makes them standard throughout the state."

Spokespeople for the San Francisco Police Department declined to comment on the bill.

The California Innocence Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of California are sponsoring SB 923.

"The need for eyewitness identification reform is nonpartisan and non-adversarial," a statement from the California Innocence Coalition said. "Eyewitness identifications are important to securing rightful convictions, but when they are improperly obtained it is the leading cause of wrongful convictions."

Kathy Sher, legislative advocate with the ACLU of California, stated, "Wrongful convictions are one of the most devastating blights plaguing our justice system - affecting those wrongly convicted and survivors who turn to our legal system seeking justice, as well as society, which relies on this system to ensure overall community safety. By establishing long-overdue best practices for eyewitness identification, SB 923 will help protect the integrity of our justice system and promote safety."

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