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A criminal investigation technique in which the police arrange a number of individuals in a row before a witness to a crime and ask the witness to identify which, if any, of the individuals committed the crime.

In a police lineup, a witness to a crime, who may be the victim, observes a group of individuals that may or may not include a suspect in the crime. The witness is not visible to those in the lineup. The witness is asked to identify which, if any, of the individuals committed the crime. A lineup places greater demands on the memory of the witness than does a viewing of a single suspect, and is believed to reduce the chances of a false identification. For example, assume a witness saw a man with a beard and a cap run across an alley near a crime scene. If the police show this witness one man who has a beard and a cap, the witness might make a positive identification. If they instead show the witness several men with a beard and a cap, the witness must make a more detailed identification and may not identify the same man.

In Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 86 S. Ct. 1826, 16 L. Ed. 2d 908 (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege against self-incrimination—the right not to be made a witness against oneself in a criminal case—does not apply to appearance in lineups. That privilege, held the Court, protects accused people only from being compelled to testify against themselves or to otherwise provide the state with evidence of a testimonial or communicative nature.

The Constitution does afford an accused individual the Right to Counsel at a post-indictment lineup, and the right not to have testimony from a suggestive lineup admitted at trial. The constitutional right to the presence of counsel at a lineup or for counsel to receive notice of a lineup attaches, or becomes available, when a formal charge, indictment, Preliminary Hearing, or Arraignment is issued or conducted. Post-indictment lineups are considered a critical part of proceedings because the filing of a charge initiates adversary proceedings, triggering the right to counsel (United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, 87 S. Ct. 1926, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1149 [1967]). Counsel observes the lineup to decide whether to offer information about it during trial in order to cast doubt on an in-court identification. (In an in-court identification, the prosecution asks the witness whether he or she identified anyone in a lineup prior to trial and if so, whether that person is present in the courtroom.) According to Wade, an "intelligent waiver" of counsel and of notice to counsel may be made by the accused.

Police lineups that are conducted prior to the filing of a formal charge or the issuance of an indictment are not regarded as occurring at a critical stage of a criminal proceeding and do not require the presence of counsel.

The Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires that a lineup not be unduly suggestive or conducive to irreparable mistaken identification. An unduly suggestive lineup might be one in which the defendant was the only female. Some characteristics that courts have considered in determining suggestiveness is whether the others in the lineup were of similar age, skin coloration, and physical characteristics such as height and weight.

Courts examine on a case-by-case basis the question of whether a lineup was unduly suggestive or created a likelihood of misidentification. In making this determination, they look at the "totality of circumstances." The totality-of-circumstances test was announced by the Supreme Court in Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98, 97 S. Ct. 2243, 53 L. Ed. 2d 140 (1977). This test considers whether the witness or victim had an opportunity to observe the criminal at the time of the crime; the accuracy of the prior description of the accused as well as the degree of attention given to that description; the level of certainty demonstrated by the victim or witness at the confrontation; and the length of time between the crime and the confrontation. Generally, if the court finds that a lineup violated due process, testimony as to the fact of identification is inadmissible. If the lineup complied with constitutional standards, a person who has identified the defendant in the lineup can testify to that fact at trial.

Further readings

Headley, Michael R. 2002. "Long on Substance, Short on Process: An Appeal for Process Long Overdue in Eyewitness Lineup Procedures." Hastings Law Journal 53 (March): 681–703.

Sussman, Jake. 2001. "Suspect Choices: Lineup Procedures and the Abdication of Judicial and Prosecutorial Responsibility for Improving the Criminal Justice System." New York University Review of Law & Social Change 27 (December): 507–42.

Yob, Dori Lynn. 2002. "Mistaken Identifications Cause Wrongful Convictions: New Jersey's Lineup Guidelines Restore Hope, but are they Enough? Santa Clara Law Review 43 (winter): 213–47.


Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Due Process of Law.


n. a law enforcement method used in an attempt to have a witness or victim identify a person suspected of committing a crime. The suspect is included in a line of people, including non-criminals and others (such as plainclothesmen, office clerks etc.) Law enforcement officials ask each person in the lineup to speak and turn to profile, while the witness or victim studies each of them and then is asked which person in the lineup, if any, committed the crime in his/her presence. One danger with this system is that the officers will suggest by manner or tone which is the suspect, or that one person in the lineup appears, by dress or conduct, to seem more suspicious. This type of identification is precarious at best.


noun arrangement, arrangement with a potennial defendant, configuration with the defendant, file, forration with the defendant, grouping, line to identify the criminal, line with a potential defendant, line with the likely suspect, order, parade, police lineup, queue, showing, showing of criminal defendants, showing of criminals for innpection and identification, showing of possible suspects, showing of suspected criminals, stage arrangement connaining the guilty party
Associated concepts: double-blind lineup, prejudicial and overly suggestive lineup, show-up
See also: arrangement, order
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