Police Lineups 101

A police lineup or ‘identity parade’ if you are in the UK, is used for one of two reasons: to identify a suspect or to confirm a suspicion.

A lineup is required only if the witness remembers characteristics about the suspect that are suitable for identification. For example, if the witness can only remember the general age of the suspect and what they were wearing, a parade will not help to identify the person responsible.

There are six main types of witness identification discussed here: photo or video lineup, live parade, group, confrontation and dock identification.


Photo Lineup

The witness is asked to identify the suspect from a group of images which will include ‘foils’ or ‘fillers’: non-suspects who fit the general description first given by the witness.

Sequential Lineup

For this method, the witness is shown 6-10 images of the suspect and foils in sequence, meaning one at a time. One way of doing this is to ensure the witness makes a decision on each photo before moving on to the next. Sometimes though, the range of photos may be shown twice to the witness before a decision is made. The advantage of the sequential method is that the witness takes their time viewing each photo carefully before being exposed to the next, thought to result in less misidentification.


Simultaneous Lineup

Between 6 and 9 photos of the suspect and foils are shown at the same time to the witness. These photo arrays are sometimes called a ‘six pack’. One of the main issues with this method is that the witness may be tempted to select the photo that most closely matches the suspect, relative to the other options; it may encourage misidentification.


Video Lineup

Similar to the photo lineup method, videos are used of the suspect and foils. This may be referred to as a VIPER: Video Identification Parade Electronic Recording.

As for the photo lineup, the foils are chosen from a database by selecting similar characteristics such as hair colour, age range, skin tone etc. The image may be moving or still in the video, but either way must depict the same movement for all images.

Where the suspect is thought to have a distinguishing mark, this is either removed from the image of the suspect or replicated on all images, for example a scar or tattoo.

Video and photo lineups are often preferred to live parades because they are inexpensive and quick to carry out; the quicker an ID can be made, the more valid the case against the suspect.


‘Live’ Identity Parade

The live lineup or identity parade is the one we all know from TV and film: the witness behind the one-way glass identifies the suspect from a group standing in a line in an adjacent room. There could be between 6 and 10 fillers, and the suspect may choose where in the lineup they stand.

Where do they find the ‘fillers’?

Traditionally these spots were filled by police officers, nearby lawyers, people off the street or even criminals in lockup. In the US it is more common for a request to be put out to nearby departments with the characteristics required.

What if the witness identifies a ‘filler’ as the suspect?

In this circumstance, the identification is considered invalid.


Group Identification

The suspect is placed in an informal group setting, where the witness may then pick out the culprit from the group.



A direct confrontation between witness and suspect takes place and the witness asked to confirm the culprit’s identity. This would usually take place at a police station and does not involve the use of ‘foils’.


Dock Identification

While all previous methods of identification would occur pre-trial, dock identification involves the witness confirming the identity of the suspect while sat in the dock at trial. You see this scene in TV courtroom dramas a fair bit: “Do you see the person who committed the crime here in the courtroom before you?”

The obvious disadvantage here is that the suspect is already sat with the Defence, which may encourage the witness to simply point out the suspect at trial; there are after all, no other alternatives for the witness to select instead.


How Effective are Lineups?

Unfortunately, witness identification of suspects is not an exact art and there have been many cases of misidentification leading to the prosecution of incorrect suspects. The Innocence Project estimates that over 70% of wrongful convictions that are overturned were the result of eyewitness misidentification. The most famous of these is the wrongful conviction of Ronald Cotton, for which you can watch a short video here.


Improvements to the process

Over time, thanks to the work of the likes of The Innocence Project and Dr Gary Wells, procedural changes are ensuring the fairest identification methods possible.

The ‘Double Blind’

When taking part in an identity parade are photo lineup, steps are taken to ensure the police officer conducting the identification is unaware of who the real suspect is among the lineup. This avoids any unconscious bias or swaying of the outcome by the police officer.

Getting the ‘Foils’ Right

Steps should be taken to ensure that the fillers in the lineup are visibly comparable to the actual suspect. They should fit as closely as possible to the initial description given by the witness, to ensure the strength of the identification; a Defence team may look to discredit an identification if the ‘foils’ never fit the physical description during the lineup.

Instructing the Witness

When instructing a witness through the process of identifying a suspect, care must be taken in the wording used so that the outcome is not unconsciously swayed. For example, a police officer must take care to tell the witness that the suspect may not be included in the lineup, so that the witness does not simply pick the closest match to the description without being sure they are the culprit.


Case Study: UK

Just four pre-trial identification procedures are used in the UK, in order of the following preference for use:

  1. Video lineup
  2. Identity parade
  3. Group identification
  4. Confrontation

Procedures undertaken to identify a suspect in the UK are subject to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (referred to as PACE), in particular the codes of practice found under code D. You can look up the particulars of PACE here. Again, following these codes as closely as possible ensures a more airtight case against the suspect that the Defence team will find hard to scrutinise. Should the validity of the identification be called into question, it is referred to in court as a section 78 argument:

PACE Act 1984 – Section 78: Exclusion of unfair evidence

In any proceedings the court may refuse to allow evidence on which the prosecution proposes to rely to be given if it appears to the court that, having regard to all the circumstances, including the circumstances in which the evidence was obtained, the admission of the evidence would have such an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings that the court ought not to admit it.


Over to you

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