Law Enforcement, Victims, and the Wrongly Convicted Urge House to Pass Landmark Eyewitness Identification Bill;
SB 1206, Requiring Identification Best Practices, Passes Senate and Awaits House Consideration
(Tallahassee, FL) As Senate Bill 1206 awaits consideration by the full Florida House of Representatives, those most affected by misidentification and wrongful conviction— law enforcement, victims of crime, and the wrongly convicted—urge the House to pass SB 1206 in its current form and pave the way for its enactment in law. SB 1206 will require all law enforcement agencies in Florida to follow certain scientifically proven best practices when preparing and administering eyewitness identification procedures. SB 1206, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron (R-Palm City), passed the full Senate on April 29, 2011, with a vote count of 34-5.
The most critical reform in SB 1206 is the required use of an independent or blind administrator who doesn’t know the identity of law enforcement’s known suspect. Thirty years of scientific testing has shown that “blind” administration is the single most important way to remove intentional or inadvertent suggestiveness from lineup procedures that lead to mistaken identifications.
“Simply spoken, as long we delay and continue to conduct photo lineups in any way that is not ‘blind’ or ‘double blind,’ many innocent people will continue to be misidentified, wrongly convicted, and wrongly incarcerated. That is a matter of public safety, for as long as the innocent subject remains incarcerated, the guilty and often dangerous subject walks the street,” said Robert Cromwell, former Special Agent-in-Charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for North Florida.
“Representative Snyder had it right when he relied on his own experience as a career police officer to conclude that sometimes folks in law enforcement are resistant to change and that the only way to diminish misidentifications and catch the real perpetrators the first time around is to require blind administration by statute. The House can heed Rep. Snyder’s words by passing SB 1206,” continued Cromwell, referring to statements of Rep. Bill Snyder (R-Stuart), made at the Florida Innocence Commission, as he implored the Commission to support Negron’s proposal that is now SB 1206. The Innocence Commission, after six months of studying the issue of eyewitness misidentification identification, voted 12-8 in March 2011, to support Negron’s legislative solution.
Should Florida enact SB 1206 into law, it will be one of over ten states to address this issue legislatively and the fourth to adopt a statewide mandate of blind administration of eyewitness identification procedures, joining New Jersey, North Carolina and Ohio. A recent survey of law enforcement agencies in Florida demonstrated that a mere 16% of those agencies even have a written policy addressing identification procedures. Of those who have policies, four agencies in Florida, Hillsborough County Sheriff, Coral Springs Police Department, Lighthouse Point Police Department, and Margate Police Department, are already performing the best practices set out in SB 1206. Additionally, scores of law enforcement agencies around the country, large and small, have implemented the best practices required by SB 1206, including The City of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Police agencies across the country have implemented the very modifications to lineup procedures contained in SB 1206 out of recognition that they enhance the reliability and accuracy of identifications. These practices help law enforcement to avoid focusing on innocent suspects that derail investigations,” said Darrel Stephens, former Chief of Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department, which implemented the very procedures in SB 1206 as part of a statewide mandate in North Carolina. “Law enforcement professionals in jurisdictions that have implemented these types of reforms, including the use of an independent administrator, find that these identifications are unassailable in court. Investigators do not have to spend time defending the practices they use to obtain identifications in court because they are scientifically-supported. There is no question that law enforcement benefits from the use of best practices in this area,” continued Stephens, who also served as the Executive Director, Police Executive Research Forum.
When the best practices set out in SB 1206 are not used, many suffer, especially the victims of crime and those wrongly convicted based on misidentifications. “When Ronald Cotton was awaiting trial and being sentenced to life in prison, Bobby Poole, the man who actually raped me, was left on the streets of Burlington NC to further rape at least six other women. It was my eyewitness identification of Ronald Cotton that led to this tragedy and still haunts me to this day. Simple reforms can be put into place to help ensure we hold the guilty accountable, the innocent are free and the victims can receive true justice,” said Jennifer Thompson, a victim of a 1984 North Carolina rape, who now speaks with exoneree Ronald Cotton about the problems with eyewitness identifications.
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions nationally and in Florida. Seventy-five percent of the 269 DNA exonerees nationally were originally wrongfully convicted based, in whole or in part, on mistaken witness identification. In Florida, 10 of 13 DNA exonerees had an eyewitness misidentification contribute to their wrongful convictions.
“A very suggestive identification procedure was used in my case that led to my misidentifictaion and wrongful conviction. I spent 24 years, 6 months, 13 days and 4 hours in prison for someone else’s crime while the real rapist remained free. My ordeal could have been prevented had SB 1206 been in place during the criminal investigation that led to my wrongful conviction,” said Alan Crotzer, convicted of a 1981 double-rape in Tampa and exonerated through DNA testing in 2006.
Crotzer signed an open letter from the wrongly convicted in Florida to the House leadership urging them to pass SB 1206 in its current form. This letter was recently published in the Orlando Sentinel and can be read here.