Editorial: Identification of suspects deserves statewide mandate

In a decision that will change lives for years to come, the Texas House of Representatives furthered legislation that would regulate the questionable way suspect identification is handled throughout state law enforcement agencies.

On Feb. 22, The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted that the standardization of how suspects are identified in criminal investigations should become a written mandate. No longer will this identification process be regulated according to individual agencies’ rules.

The change is an effort to cut down on the mistakes made by law enforcement agencies in the identification of suspects in criminal investigations. This is a valiant effort, specifically for Texas Legislators, being that Texas is the national leader for the most exonerations based on DNA evidence. More than 40 innocent people wrongly imprisoned in the state have been released based on advancements in the testing of DNA since 1994.

The Associated Press reported that currently only 12 agencies throughout the state have a written procedure on how identification of suspects — like live or photographic lineups — are handled.

The proposed law, which has passed both committees of the Texas Legislature, would prevent any influence in the conduction of the lineups and now it would be against policy to ever identify the suspect or point them out to the eyewitness.

This is an excellent and logical move by the committee. In fact, it is surprising some form of regulation concerning this matter does not already exist. If the law is to protect a nation’s citizens, where are we to turn during wrongful convictions or convoluted identifying processes?

Steps needed to be taken to ensure not only that guilty people are imprisoned, but also that the investigation does not end with the wrong person behind bars.

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is the author of the proposed changes. He told the Associated Press that mistakes on the part of the eyewitnesses in the identification of criminals is the leading factor in false convictions. The current process relies too heavily on eyewitnesses. The false identification of a suspect is a serious threat to the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the state, and our state -funded agencies need to be held responsible for the accuracy of the identifying process.

Innocent people can be subjected to humiliating and detrimental consequences simply because of someone bearing false witness. But it’s not just time that an innocent person can lose. It is their reputation, as well. Public embarrassment, issues at work because of time spent in jail and the emotional burden of an arrest are consequences that cannot be reversed even if the person is not convicted of the crime.

It is a bit unnerving to think that there is no established form of regulation in one of the most fundamental building blocks of the state’s justice system. How many times has this lack of parameters cost law-abiding citizens years of their lives? Or tireless hours fighting a wrongful arrest in court?

This small move by the state government has the potential to revolutionize how suspects are handled and can easily prevent future damage that is sure to come to those falsely identified.

Statewide regulation will provide a uniform and effective way of both enforcing the law and protecting citizens from victimization through false imprisonment.