Face-to-Face Eyewitness Identification: “Showups”

Showups bring suspects and witnesses or victims of a crime together in face-to-face meetings.

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At a showup, a witness or victim is con­fronted with only one person rather than a group of people. And whereas lineups almost always take place in police stations, showups may occur in a station or in the field, even at the crime scene. A crime-scene showup is especially likely when the police capture a suspect shortly after a crime has occurred.

Because showups almost always take place before charges are filed, suspects don’t have a right to have an attorney present. (For more on the right to an attorney during identification procedures and a variety of information on identification law, see Eyewitness Identification.)

More Reliable?

Research experiments haven’t demon­strated differences in reliability between identifications resulting from showups and those produced by lineups. Showups often take place soon after a crime, meaning that memory is less of a problem. But on the other hand, witnesses may still be under great stress when the police return soon after a crime with a possible suspect in tow. And nothing, short of telling the witness who committed the crime, could be more suggestive than presenting a single, in-custody person for identification. Further, regardless of what police officers say, an unsure witness might feel pressure to point the finger at the person on display.

One for Two

It’s possible that the police will require a suspect to participate in both a showup and a lineup. They might, for instance, conduct the initial showup, then arrange for a lineup after the filing of charges. At least theoretically, the lineup can substantiate the showup identification and provide a basis to determine whether additional witnesses can also identify the suspect as the perpetrator.

Different Criteria

In deciding whether to admit evidence of a pretrial identification, judges don’t apply the same standard to all ID procedures. The burden is even higher for defendants seeking to suppress a showup identification: In most jurisdictions, the evidence comes in unless they can establish a “very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification.” (Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968).) The questions that judges consider when determining the validity of a showup include:

  • How carefully did the eyewitness observe the suspect during the crime?
  • How closely does the suspect match the description that the eyewitness gave the police?
  • How confident was the eyewitness that the suspect was the perpetrator? (Eyewitness identification research casts doubt on the legitimacy of this factor.)
  • How much time elapsed between the crime and the showup?

Consult a Lawyer

Consult an experienced lawyer if you have been or might be the subject of an eyewitness identification procedure. Your attorney can determine whether you have a viable challenge to any ID that's occurred. If the judge admits evidence of the pretrial identification, your lawyer may be able to formulate an approach that causes the jury to doubt the witness.

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