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Massachusetts Court Discusses Show-Up Identifications in Recent Robbery Case

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts robbery case discussing show-up identifications and when they are permissible under state law. Following an arrest, one of the most important things law enforcement can do to further an investigation is to get a positive identification from the victim of the crime. However, eyewitness identifications have come under scrutiny in recent years, as studies have repeatedly shown that they are not as accurate as once thought.

Law enforcement can conduct identifications in several ways. The gold-standard when it comes to identification is a double-blind photo identification. The term double-blind refers to the fact that neither the eyewitness nor the law enforcement officer administering the procedure know who the suspect is. In a double-blind photo array, one detective puts the suspect’s photograph with several other people’s picture, and provides the photos to another detective who is not involved in the case. That detective then asks the alleged victim to make an identification. Double-blind photo arrays eliminate the concern that the detective administering the array could give a clue to the alleged victim.

In the case mentioned above, the defendant was identified by way of show-up identification. A show-up identification occurs shortly after an arrest. Law enforcement will transport the alleged victim to the arrestee, and ask the alleged victim if the arrestee was the doer of the crime. Of course, there are many problems with a show-up identification based on its inherently suggestive nature. For example, in this case, both alleged victims were transported in the same police car to the defendant’s location, where he was handcuffed up against a wall, surrounded by police officers. As the officer with the alleged victims arrived, he shined a bright spotlight onto the defendant, and both of the complaining witnesses immediately identified the defendant. The defendant was ultimately convicted and appealed his conviction based on the suggestiveness of the show-up identification.

The court ended up affirming the defendant’s conviction. However, the court used the opportunity to discuss show-up identifications generally, noting that these procedures are “disfavored as inherently suggestive.” However, the court went on to explain that there may be good reason for a show-up identification, including “the nature of the crime involved and corresponding concerns for public safety; the need for efficient police investigation in the immediate aftermath of a crime; and the usefulness of prompt confirmation” of the officers’ arrest.

The court explained that a defendant can challenge a show-up identification one of two ways:

  1. By showing that this particular type of identification procedure was not necessary, and that police could have used a more reliable method; or
  2. By showing that the procedure used by the police included “special elements of unfairness.”

Here, the court reviewed all the facts and determined that neither ground was met. However, the court held that, moving forward, it would be required for police officers who are administering a show-up identification to provide some instruction to the witness to reduce the suggestiveness of the process.

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