The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a case that could change the way courts allow eyewitness testimony in court. The case stems from an incident where the suspect Barion Perry was stopped by a Nashua police officer after being spotted with stolen property. The Officer was responding to reports of a black man breaking into a car and saw the suspect holding two sound system ampliﬁers. After some investigation a witness identified the suspect as being the one who broke into the car. An eye witness saw the suspect with another officer and pointed him out as being the one who broke into the car. Although the suspect was pointed out at the scene, when shown a group of pictures as a lineup and later inside the courtroom, the witness was not able to properly identify the suspect.
The argument before the court is whether the witness was compromised by the fact that she saw the suspect in what could be described as a compromised situation. The defense is arguing that by seeing the suspect being questioned by police, the witness may have simply assumed that the suspect was the one she saw. Although the witness was never put on the stand, the officer that found the suspect did tell the jury about the fact that the witness had identified the suspect at the scene.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the witness was reliable because the police did nothing to actively steer the witness into pointing out the suspect. It has been precedence that if the police actively tell the witness who the suspect was, that the subsequent identification was unreliable. In this case, the police never actually told the witness who the current suspect was. The witness may have simply assumed who the suspect was based on the fact that Mr. Perry was being questioned by the police. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Perry was required to show “improper state action” in order to receive a ruling in his favor. The defense is arguing that it does not matter if the witness was tainted intentionally, or whether the police simply acted in a way that suggested to the witness who the suspect was.
During oral arguments Justice Scalia pressed the defense on whether unreliable eyewitness testimony in favor of the defendant would also be thrown out of court according to the same logic. Richard Guerriero, attorney for the defendant quickly shut down that argument by pointing out that there is a difference. “Well, the defendant is obviously not trying to deprive the State of its liberty in the same way that the State is trying to deprive the defendant of his liberty at trial,” Guerriero argued, ” so the Due Process Clause would not apply in that sense.”
The outcome of this case may not be groundbreaking. However, a verdict in favor of Mr. Perry could cause local police departments to retrain their officers in the proper way of interrogation of suspects. This case could also change the way that eyewitness testimony is viewed in a court of law. It is unclear when a ruling is expected for this case.
American Bar Association
US Supreme Court