Bill to Help Prevent Wrongful Convictions of Innocent People by Strengthening Eyewitness ID Standards Passes Public Safety Committee

April 10, 2018

Sacramento –  Today the Senate Public Safety Committee passed Senate Bill 923 – authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-Marin County)-- which sets statewide eyewitness identification standards to help prevent misidentifications that lead to innocent people being convicted and actual perpetrators remaining free. SB 923 is sponsored by the California Innocence Coalition and the ACLU of California.

SB 923 passed by a bipartisan vote of 6-0 with Senators Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Joel Anderson (R-Alpine), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) in support along with Senator Wiener. It now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Our justice system should be based on best practices that allow our law enforcement officials to do their jobs and the public to have the confidence that we are keeping our communities safe,” said Senator Wiener. “Our current lack of eyewitness standards can lead to wrongful convictions and the actual perpetrator of the crime remaining free. We know there are counties that are already employing practices that work, and this bill will ensure that everywhere in California our justice system is focused on doing everything we can do keep innocent people out of jail while still allowing public safety officials to do their jobs.”

Nationally, eyewitness misidentification is the leading contributor to convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence. Currently there is no statewide standard for best practices governing eyewitness identification, though some law enforcement agencies in counties like Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Clara have adopted some of the recommended procedures for best practices.

At the Public Safety hearing, Uriah Courtney testified to his experience of being wrongly identified and convicted, which lead to him serving nine years in prison before he was exonerated through DNA.

“I went through this trial where day in and day out I was being called a rapist, a predator, an animal, and I had to sit there silently and take all of this in, and my mother sat there behind me each day heartbroken and sobbing, and at the end of my trial I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. As if the day of my arrest wasn’t bad enough, but being sentenced to life in prison for a crime I did not commit is really beyond words to describe how utterly devastating it actually was,” said Uriah Courtney at the hearing. He went on to say, “My case is a classic case of mistaken identity.  Thank god that the evidence was preserved in my case so I could come here and tell my story today. But it is a classic case of mistaken identity. But I bear no grudge against the victim who was truly mistaken in her identification of me as her attacker.  She was wrong, and sometimes people get it wrong, and that’s why we need bills like the one we’re here for today: to try to help prevent cases like mine.”

SB 923 adopts evidence-based procedures that have been endorsed by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, the National Academy of the Sciences, the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, and the International Association of Police Chiefs to improve the way in which eyewitness identifications are conducted throughout the state. 

The core pillars required under SB 923 are:

  1. Blind/Blinded Administration: Blind/blinded administration of procedures prevents suggestiveness. In a blind lineup the officer administering the procedure is unaware of the suspect’s identity. If that is not practical, a “blinded technique” can be used such as the folder shuffle method in which the suspect and filler photographs are placed in separate folders, shuffled and handed to the eyewitness one at a time.
  2. Eyewitness Instructions: Prior to the procedure, eyewitnesses should be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup.
  3. Proper Use of Fillers: Non-suspect “fillers” used in the lineup should match the witness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not noticeably stand out.
  4. Confidence Statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his or her own words, that articulates the level of confidence in the identification.
  5. Recording: The entire identification procedure is videotaped.