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Neil v. Biggers


    Citation. Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188, 93 S. Ct. 375, 34 L. Ed. 2d 401, 1972 U.S. LEXIS 6 (U.S. Dec. 6, 1972)

    Brief Fact Summary. The constitutionality of a station house identification by the victim of a rape was at issue.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “Weighing all the factors, [there is] no substantial likelihood of misidentification.”


    Facts. The Respondent was convicted of rape and imprisoned for twenty years. Part of the state’s evidence was a station house identification by the victim. The Respondent brought a federal habeus corpus action. The District Court held that the station house identification procedure was so suggestive as to violate due process. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
    The victim gave the police what the Federal District Court characterized as ‘only a very general description,’ describing the assailant as ‘being fat and flabby with smooth skin, bushy hair and a youthful voice.’ ” Additionally, though not mentioned by the District Court, she testified at the habeas corpus hearing that she had described her assailant as being between 16 and 18 years old and between five feet ten inches and six feet tall, as weighing between 180 and 200 pounds, and as having a dark brown complexion. This testimony was substantially corroborated by that of a police officer who was testifying from his notes.”

    “On several occasions over the course of the next seven months, she viewed suspects in her home or at the police station, some in lineups and others in showups, and was shown between 30 and 40 photographs. She told the police that a man pictured in one of the photographs had features similar to those of her assailant, but identified none of the suspects. On August 17, the police called her to the station to view respondent, who was being detained on another charge. In an effort to construct a suitable lineup, the police checked the city jail and the city juvenile home. Finding no one at either place fitting respondent’s unusual physical description, they conducted a showup instead.”

    “The showup itself consisted of two detectives walking respondent past the victim. At the victim’s request, the police directed respondent to say ‘shut up or I’ll kill you.’ The testimony at trial was not altogether clear as to whether the victim first identified him and then asked that he repeat the words or made her identification after he had spoken. In any event, the victim testified that she had ‘no doubt’ about her identification.”

    Issue. Whether the station house identification procedure was so suggestive (not reliable) to violate due process?

    Held. The majority observed “first of all, [it is] apparent that the primary evil to be avoided is ‘a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification.'”  “What is less clear from our cases is whether, as intimated by the District Court, unnecessary suggestiveness alone requires the exclusion of evidence.” “The purpose of a strict rule barring evidence of unnecessarily suggestive confrontations would be to deter the police from using a less reliable procedure where a more reliable one may be available, and would not be based on the assumption that in every instance the admission of evidence of such a confrontation offends due process.”  “As indicated by [the court’s] cases, the factors to be considered in evaluating the likelihood of misidentification include the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime, the witness’ degree of attention, the accuracy of the witness’ prior description of the criminal, the level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the confrontation, and the length of time between the crime and the confrontation.”

    “[W]e think the District Court focused unduly on the relative reliability of a lineup as opposed to a showup, the issue on which expert testimony was taken at the evidentiary hearing. It must be kept in mind also that the trial was conducted before Stovall and that therefore the incentive was lacking for the parties to make a record at trial of facts corroborating or undermining the identification. The testimony was addressed to the jury, and the jury apparently found the identification reliable. Some of the State’s testimony at the federal evidentiary hearing may well have been self-serving in that it too neatly fit the case law, but it surely does nothing to undermine the state record, which itself fully corroborated the identification.”
    Further, “[t]he victim spent a considerable period of time with her assailant, up to half an hour. She was with him under adequate artificial light in her house and under a full moon outdoors, and at least twice, once in the house and later in the woods, faced him directly and intimately. She was no casual observer, but rather the victim of one of the most personally humiliating of all crimes. Her description to the police, which included the assailant’s approximate age, height, weight, complexion, skin texture, build, and voice, might not have satisfied Proust but was more than ordinarily thorough. She had ‘no doubt’ that respondent was the person who raped her. In the nature of the crime, there are rarely witnesses to a rape other than the victim, who often has a limited opportunity of observation. The victim here, a practical nurse by profession, had an unusual opportunity to observe and identify her assailant. She testified at the habeas corpus hearing that there was something about his face ‘I don’t think I could ever forget.’ ”

    Discussion. This case provides an interesting discussion of how pre-trial identifications are construed by the courts.

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