Eyewitness Identification Decision May Challenge Law Enforcement, P2 - Sparrow Law Firm

We are continuing our discussion of a recent court ruling, in another state, regarding eyewitness identifications. The defendant in the case was convicted of reckless manslaughter, aggravated assault and weapons possession charges, even though the eyewitness told the court that a detective had “nudged” him to identify the defendant.

Court decisions from outside of North Carolina are not binding; the only courts a North Carolina judge must follow are the state appellate court, the state Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Decisions in other states’ courts, however, can be persuasive. If, for example, a particular defense has not been used in this state, the judge may look to other states for guidance.

For that reason, this New Jersey Supreme Court decision could have a far-reaching effect on law enforcement.

The opinion itself is not just an opinion. The court takes on the issue of reliability of eyewitness identifications and mandates significant changes to the system.

If a defendant questions an eyewitness’s testimony, he must show the court that there is a substantial likelihood of mis-identification. The court would then determine, through a hearing, if the witness is reliable. Factors to be considered include race, stress and timing of the positive identification.

The court goes into far more detail than we can here. One law professor described the decision as “very comprehensive,” adding that the court “methodically evaluates the totality of scientific evidence that is available at this point in time.”

The next step is for the Supreme Court to approve new model jury instructions on witness identification. From that point, courts will have 30 days to get the new process going.

Source: New York Times, “In New Jersey, Rules Are Changed on Witness IDs,” Benjamin Weiser, Aug. 24, 2011