What Are the Rules for Police Lineups?

Having an eyewitness testify that he or she saw the suspect commit the crime or some act associated with the crime can be powerful evidence for a prosecutor. Realizing this, the United States Supreme Court and state courts across the country have established strict guidelines regarding police lineups.

About Police Lineups

The typical police lineup usually consists of placing a criminal suspect in a group of other individuals who had nothing to do with the crime. The eyewitness is tasked with the responsibility of identifying the suspect.

One way to perform a police lineup is to have the eyewitness identify a suspect during a live lineup. This process usually involves having the suspect and four or five other people line up against a wall.

Another common way to conduct a police lineup is to present the eyewitness with a series of pictures. Photo lineups typically include six or more photos.

With either type of lineup, there
may be a simultaneous or sequential process. With a simultaneous lineup, all of the individuals are lined up, either live or in photos, at the same time. With a sequential lineup, the eyewitness views people or photos that are presented one by one.

Problems with Lineups

An important issue surrounding lineups is that law enforcement officers intentionally or inadvertently may give the eyewitness signals to identify the suspect. In some lineups, individuals who are not suspects may not resemble the description provided by the witness. Another potential issue is that eyewitnesses feel pressured to point out someone in a lineup. They may compare individuals in a lineup to each other, rather than to their memory of the suspect.

Specific Rights

Due to the implications of a police lineup, criminal suspects have a number of rights under federal and state laws.

Right to an Attorney

If a suspect is in a physical lineup, he or she has the right to an attorney. A criminal suspect’s right to an attorney does not begin at trial. Instead, the right arises during every critical stage, including in-person lineups. However, a person’s right to an attorney is not triggered at a photo array.

If a suspect had a lawyer and he or she was not present during a physical lineup, the lawyer can attempt to have the identification at the lineup suppressed from evidence.

One reason why it is important for a lawyer to be present during a physical lineup is to prevent bias or improper procedures. A lawyer can put someone in the vicinity who has the suspect’s legal interests in mind. The lawyer can help ensure that the suspect’s rights are not violated during this process.

Freedom from Suggestion

Another right that criminal suspects have during a police lineup is to be free from an identification process that is unnecessarily suggestive. If a law enforcement officer pressures a witness to identify a particular person in the lineup, the suspect’s rights may have been violated. In assessing whether the lineup was unnecessarily suggestive, the court considers the circumstances leading up to the eyewitness identification.

Freedom from Substantial Likelihood of Misidentification

Another right that criminal suspects have in relation to police lineups is freedom from a substantial likelihood of misidentification. A substantial likelihood of misidentification can occur when all of the fillers look much different than the description provided by the witness, such as being a different race.


The typical remedy for improper police procedure pertaining to a bad police lineup is exclusion of the witness’ identification. A lawyer requests a hearing to suppress the identification. The suspect may have to testify to discuss the circumstances related to the identification. Such statements generally cannot be used against the defendant at a trial. If the judge finds that the lineup procedure was not proper, he or she orders the identification to be suppressed.

However, the eyewitness may be able to identify the suspect again in court if the identification is supported by other independent evidence.


In some instances, law enforcement officers will take a victim or eyewitness to a location to see the suspect. This process is known as a showup. Some courts have suppressed identifications that derive from such origins due to the inherent suggestiveness of them.

Jury Instructions

If the eyewitness identification played a significant role in the case, a lawyer may be able to get a jury instruction regarding eyewitness identifications. Jury instructions are important because they are the last thing that a jury hears before deliberating.

Provided by HG.org

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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