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Supreme Court Modifies Rules on Eyewitness Identification in Felony and Misdemeanor Cases

In a pair of companion cases recently decided, the New Jersey Supreme Court has modified the current legal standard for analyzing the reliability of eyewitness identifications in both felony and misdemeanor prosecutions.

In State v. Henderson, the Court determined that the current standards in place for assessing the reliability of eyewitness identification is not adequate, in that those standards fail to deter inappropriate conduct by the police, and place too much stock in a jury's ability to properly evaluate identification evidence.  The Court held that when a defendant can show some evidence of suggestiveness on the part of the police, a pre-trial hearing is necessary for the judge to determine the admissibility of the identification evidence.  Also, the courts must develop new and improved jury charges (i.e., instructions on the law given to jurors by the judge after the case is concluded) on eyewitness identifications in order to assist jurors in evaluating eyewitness identification evidence.  The Court's  holding is largely premised in the fact that a vast body of scientific research about human memory has emerged over the years -- research which suggests that multiple variables can affect and diminish memory and lead to misidentifications.

In the companion decision in State v. Chen, the Court held that even in the absence of police action, if a defendant can present evidence that an eyewitness identification was made under highly suggestive circumstances that could lead to misidentification, judges should conduct pre-trial hearings to determine the admissibility of the identification evidence.  The burden is nevertheless on the defendant to show a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification before a judge can rule the identification evidence inadmissible.

Naturally, these two Supreme Court decisions are vitally important to New Jersey criminal defense attorneys, including criminal attorneys in Ocean and Monmouth Counties, where identification is an issue in a particular case.

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