If you enjoy good crime movies or dramas, you’ve probably come across a scene of a police line up. You know, where the police gets a bunch of similar looking suspects to stand in a line, and they ask a witness to point out the person who committed the crime.
In fact, this whole police line up thing was a such big part of crime based movies that an award winning movie called the Usual Suspects used it as their movie poster.
With police line-ups being such a huge part of American police dramas, you may end up thinking that it’s purely an American practice. But here’s the thing – the PDRM also uses police line ups to help them solve crimes, but with two major differences. The first is that over in Malaysia, it’s known as an ‘identification parade’. The second difference there are real-life consequences when a witness identifies the wrong person.
This is why the police (and our criminal justice system as a whole) is wayyyyyy more careful with how they handle line-ups and will only resort to it if...
They’re unsure of the criminal’s identity
Sometimes the PDRM faces problems when investigating a crime, and a common problem is when they’re unsure of the criminal’s identity. They may arrest someone based on physical descriptions given by witnesses but, in order to make sure that they have the right person, they may call the witness(es) back to identify the suspect via a line up/identification parade.
But if you were ever to be called in as a witness, you might be wondering what would happen if you identified the wrong person?
Good news is that there are several safeguards in place. Police procedures might change with time and circumstances but, according to guidelines discussed in a recent research journal (published in 2018), the police have to ensure that:
- there are at least 10 suspects in the line up, and they must look similar to each other
- you must be asked if you have any objections to the suspects in the line up
- the whole line up process must be as objective for you as possible
- they can’t show you photographs or give you any verbal/written descriptions before the line up
- and you MAY have to touch the person you think is the suspect
This is to ensure that you make a decision based entirely from your own recollection and not from external influences.
But even when all these steps are taken, it’s still possible to point out the wrong suspect. So, another safeguard is put in place:
Judges are VERY careful when using identification evidence
Before a judge decides whether someone is guilty or not, he will have to look at all evidence. If he’s gonna put someone in jail, he has to be absolutely certain the person committed the crime. Basically, if the judge thinks “I’m very sure he did the crime, there’s no other explanation”, then he may go on to give a guilty verdict. But, if he has doubts, like “It’s possible he did it, but then again...”, he must let the person go free.
Sometimes, in a criminal case, the majority (or even entirety) of the case can hinge on a witness’s line up identification. As we mentioned earlier, this can be problem because the wrong person can be pointed out.
To prevent such a mishap from happening, the courts in England and Wales addressed the problem in an appeal case called R v Turnbull (1976). We won’t go into the details of the case, but what happened was that the defendants (those accused of the crime) claimed that the witness was mistaken when pointing them out in an identity parade. The questions raised in this trial led to a set of guidelines for such situations known as the Turnbull warning.
So now, if a judge is presented with a case where most of the evidence is from a police line up he has to do the following:
- Warn himself to be cautious when deciding the case
- Be aware of why he needs a warning (eg a witness can be mistaken)
- Examine the circumstances of how the identification was made
- If the quality of the identification is good he can use the evidence to decide whether to convict or not
- If the quality is bad, he may have to disregard the evidence
These things are not just done within the judge’s mind like a mantra, he also has to mention it in his judgement (if not, no one would know if he followed the guidelines). But just to be absolutely sure that the wrong person doesn’t go to jail, there’s a THIRD safeguard in place...
You can appeal if you think the process was flawed
There’s this one local case called Jaafar bin Ali v PP, where the accused (Jaafar) was found guilty of attempted murder, mainly based on witnesses identifying him from a police line up. However, it was later shown that the process was flawed because the police showed witnesses pictures of Jaafar beforehand. But even when this was brought up, the judge went on to find Jaafar guilty of attempted murder.
Jaafar’s lawyers then appealed the decision to the High Court, arguing that the previous judge convicted Jaafar despite the flawed identification process. In other words, they were arguing that the judge didn’t follow the Turnbull principles. The High Court agreed, and set Jaafar free.
So unlike what you see on TV, actual mechanisms have been put in place to ensure a police line up happens properly in the real world… and not just in Malaysia. The police have their set of procedures to follow, the courts have their principles of caution, and if those two don’t work out – there’s always an appeal to a higher court.