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Due to a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new regulations to assist defendants in challenging this kind of evidence in criminal cases.

Now the defendant has the ability to request a hearing if he or she wishes to present evidence that a witness was unduly influenced in making an identification.  The judge will consider a multitude of issues such as:

  • Police behavior
  • If the victim felt pressure at the time of the identification
  • Time that has passed since the crime
  • Lighting in the room
  • Whether a weapon was visible during the crime of short duration
  • Amount of time the witness had to observe the event
  • How close the witness was to the suspect
  • Whether the witness was under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race
  • Length of time that had elapsed between the crime and identification.

When such disputed evidence is admitted, now the judge is required to provide detailed explanations to the jurors on any kind of influences that could have increased the risk of misidentification.

This decision is applicable only in New Jersey but is expected to have national impact, as New Jersey has historically been a leader in establishing such guidelines.  In fact, the court’s Chief Justice, Stuart J. Rabner, is of the opinion that it is about time to revise the test for reliability of eyewitness testimony as put forth by the United States Supreme Court 34 years ago.

According to Chief Justice Rabner, instead of relying on “bright-line rules that would lead to suppression of reliable evidence any time a law enforcement officer makes a mistake,” the new ruling now allows for a more inclusive exploration of the factors pertaining to an identification “to preclude sufficiently unreliable identifications from being presented and to aid juries in weighing identification evidence.”

Why the Change?

Why the change now?  Well, there has been increased scrutiny of the eyewitness identification procedure among all law enforcement individuals, including lawyers, and the scientific community.  The new ruling is highly significant because, as Chief Justice Rabner put it, “it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country.” 

The exhaustive effort to research this matter was led by a Special Master, Geoffrey Gaulkin, who is a retired judge.  Justice Gaulkin held hearings, and reviewed literature and more than 2,000 studies related to this subject.  In his decision, Rabner wrote that, “from social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real.”

Furthermore, since identification evidence will continue to be presented to a jury and juries will continue to determine the reliability of eyewitness testimony, “it is essential to educate jurors about factors that can lead to misidentification,” according to Chief Justice Rabner.

Reaction to Ruling

The ruling has received praise from the legal community, especially those who have pressed for reforms.  According to Barry C. Scheck, a director of the Innocense Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, “it’s going to affect the way every state and federal court in the United States assesses eyewitness identification evidence, and what those courts tell juries about the factors that can increase the risk of misidentification.”