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Single-Photograph Identification Procedures “Disfavored” in Massachusetts

Oftentimes, when police are searching for a suspect of a crime, they will employ an identification procedure.  Identification procedures vary, and can include a photographic array; a lineup (as you might see on TV); or a one-on-one show up identification procedure.  Single-photograph identification procedures, akin to a “one-on-one show-up”, involve showing a witness one photograph or one person and asking if they are the person they believe to be the suspect of the crime.  One on one photo and single-photo identification procedures, however, are “generally disfavored” in Massachusetts.

Single-photo ID procedures are generally disfavored because, where only one person or photograph is shown to the witness, the procedure itself is unnecessarily suggestive and conducive to an irreparable mistaken identification.  If such a procedure is employed in the case and challenged by the defendant charged, and a court finds that, in fact, it was unnecessarily suggestive, then the identification could be suppressed or excluded from trial.

Notwithstanding, they are permissible in certain suggestions where “good reason exists for the police to use a one-on-one identification procedure.”  In determining whether “good reason” exists, court will look to several factors, including: the nature of the crime involved and the corresponding concerns for public safety; the need for efficient police investigation in the immediate aftermath of a crime; and the usefulness of prompt confirmation of the accuracy of the investigatory information (which, if in error, will release the police quickly to follow another investigatory track).  Therefore, “good reason” for a one-on-one identification procedure will be upheld by the court where there is some combination of these factors is present.  Each case is examined on an individual basis as facts are different in each case; but generally, if none of these factors are present, the identification procedure is unlikely to be upheld.

In a recent case decided a few weeks ago by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, a defendant charged with larceny over $250 challenged the one-on-one identification employed by the police in his case. He was charged with stealing $30,000 in jewelry from an elderly couple who had hired a moving company to move from their home to their new condominium.  The couple discovered that the boxes where the jewelry had been stored were empty.

They contacted the police and they focused on the two movers, one of which was the defendant. It was learned that the defendant had been alone in the room that stored the jewelry for a period of time and that he had unpacked the dresser drawers at the end of the move. After the move, the defendant also asked to be dropped off at a pawn shop on the ride home.

The police went to the pawn shop and spoke with the owner. The pawn shop owner told police a man came into the store on the day in question and wanted to sell some jewelry.  The pawn shop owner rejected the offer to buy the jewelry because the man didn’t have identification; but he agreed to hold the jewelry as collateral for a three-week loan. At this point the police showed the pawn shop owner a photo of the suspect mover. The pawn shop owner positively identified the defendant as the person who had come into the shop and attempted to sell him the jewelry that he later took as collateral.

After having been charged in court, the defendant moves to suppress the single-photo identification of him.  The motion judge denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed the judge’s order denying his motion and entered an order allowing the motion to suppress. The Appeals Court noted that none of the “good reason” factors were present in this case. They reasoned that the crime being investigated here was a property crime, as opposed to a crime of violence; the identification was not made in the aftermath of the crime; and there was no suggestion that the detective would be thrown off track unless he used the single-photograph display.

Conversely, another circumstance where a single-photograph or one-on-one identification might be upheld is where a crime of violence is involved, such as an armed robbery; home invasion or a murder; and where the suspects fled and were caught in proximity to the crime scene. If a description was given and they were stopped in a location or route where the suspects were believed to have fled, a one-on-one identification would possibly be upheld.

Again, whether any identification procedure is proper depends on the specific facts of each particular case.  The facts of each case and ID procedure should be explored and thoroughly researched in order to determine whether there is any merit to challenge the ID procedure.

Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis