U.S. Supreme Court

Ginsburg Opinion Rejects Due Process Inquiries on Eyewitness IDs; Sotomayor Dissents


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there is no due-process requirement for judges to hold pretrial screenings to assess the reliability of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion (PDF) rejecting a theft defendant’s claim that pretrial screening is needed because of the grave risk that mistaken identification will result in a miscarriage of justice. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenter.

“When no improper law enforcement activity is involved,” Ginsburg wrote, “it suffices to test reliability through the rights and opportunities generally designed for that purpose, notably, the presence of counsel at postindictment lineups, vigorous cross-examination, protective rules of evidence, and jury instructions on both the fallibility of eyewitness identification and the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The defendant, Barion Perry, was convicted with the help of an eyewitness who told police she saw a man breaking into cars and then pointed to Perry as the perpetrator. Perry was standing next to a police officer in the parking lot at the time. The witness was unable to identify Perry in a later photo array.

Perry’s lawyer had cited studies showing that eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions. “We do not doubt either the importance or the fallibility of eyewitness identifications,” Ginsburg wrote. “We have concluded in other contexts, however, that the potential unreliability of a type of evidence does not alone render its introduction at the defendant’s trial fundamentally unfair.”

The case is Perry v. New Hampshire.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court Weighs Judges’ Duties to Evaluate Eyewitness Testimony”

ABAJournal.com: “Judges’ Role in Policing Eyewitness Testimony Is Back Before Supreme Court”

Penultimate paragraph changed at 6:45 p.m. to correct name to Perry.

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