Archive for the ‘Evidence’ Category

A Prosecutor Defends Eyewitness Identification

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

It’s fairly well-established that eyewitness identification sucks, as a rule. There have been tons of scientific studies going back decades — and more are conducted all the time — on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The studies generally conclude that we’re really bad at noticing things, remembering them accurately, and identifying faces we aren’t already familiar with. Oh, and we really really suck at it when the face is of someone of another race. Meanwhile, the field of neuroscience is reporting breakthroughs literally every month in our understanding of how the brain creates memories, stores memories, distorts memories, processes sensory perceptions, processes faces, recognizes faces, et cetera et cetera et cetera. On top of all that, there have been studies demonstrating how traditional law enforcement methods can make all of this even worse, and what other methods would work better. And on top of all that is the incontrovertible data that eyewitness testimony has played a significant role in wrongful convictions that have been proven to be wrongful.

If you want to go read the scientific literature, please do. There’s a lot. If you want a quick-and-dirty version, I’ve been covering it in my comic for — holy hell, a year now? For those preferring a more, say, jurisprudential approach, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an excellent summary of the situation in Criminal Law 2.0, his preface to this summer’s Georgetown Law Journal Annual Review of Criminal Procedure. Click on the link to read his views.

But in American jurisprudence, these are still minority views. The courts are slow to adopt change, and have been incredibly slow to adapt the law of eyewitness identifications to the scientific facts. It’s starting to happen. And I fully expect us to reach critical mass within a generation if not sooner. But the majority of courts aren’t there yet.

And law enforcement isn’t entirely on board, either. You’d think they’d want to be on board, though — after all, who wants to lock up an innocent person and leave the real bad guy free to do it again? But inertia, the investment of ego, and confirmation bias are much more powerful than you may suspect. Especially in law enforcement. You’ve seen the mind-numbingly bad arguments cops and prosecutors have come up with to insist someone’s guilty even after the DNA proves he isn’t — or even to fight tooth and nail against the DNA analysis that would prove it. There’s too much invested in having been right.

And there’s a lot of ego, inertia, and confirmation bias invested in the sense that eyewitness identifications — they way they’ve traditionally been done — are just fine and dandy.

Which brings us to the recent publication of “The Unreliable Case Against the Reliability of Eyewitness Identifications: A Response to Judge Alex Kozinski,” by Connecticut appellate prosecutor Laurie Feldman.

Feldman’s piece is an attempt to say Kozinski — and all the others who have problems with eyewitness identifications and testimony — have it all wrong. Things aren’t as bad as everyone says, and we shouldn’t jump to make unnecessary reforms. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Click on the link to read the whole thing yourself. I, for one, don’t find it terribly well reasoned, but your mileage may vary. From what I understand, her points are these:

(1) There’s no scientific proof that jurors put too much store in eyewitness testimony.

(2) There’s no good science saying eyewitnesses aren’t reliable.

(3) Scholarship here is agenda-driven, which distorts the results. Peer review only makes this worse.

(4) Just because someone was exonerated, that doesn’t mean he was innocent. So how does that mean the eyewitness who fingered him was wrong?

(5) So what if 72% of DNA-based exonerations were cases involving false I.D.? How many cases, where DNA proved guilt, involved an eyewitness’s correct I.D.? What if it’s the same number?

(6) We’ve only exonerated a teeny tiny subfraction of a fraction of people convicted on eyewitness testimony. That sounds like they’re reliable, not unreliable.

(7) Courts are allowing experts to testify about all this, and they shouldn’t. This exposes the jury to political agendas, and makes the scientists advocates instead of objective scientists. Courts are moving too fast to adopt reforms like this.

(8) It’s unwise to jump on the latest social-science fad to fix what ain’t broke. There’s not a single study saying that double-blind experiments are better than ones where the examiner knows who the suspect is. And simultaneous lineups simply get better results than sequential ones.

All I can say is:

(1) If her footnotes are to be relied upon, she clearly has a lot of reading to do. I can suggest a bibliography if she wants one. This recent National Academy of Sciences report is a good start. Heck, she’s welcome to take every damn book off my bookshelf right now because I need the space for all my resources for the comic’s upcoming forays into Constitutional Law.

(2) Ditto.

(3) Perhaps she should stop reading scholarly writings and “social science” sources, and focus on the objective scientific studies out there. I encourage her to maintain a healthy skepticism of sociology and meta-analysis and studies with small sample size or weird methods — but the good news is there’s a whole lot of good stuff out there with good clean numbers and healthy p-values.

(4) DNA exonerations pretty clearly show he ain’t the guy. The eyewitness who absolutely positively no doubt about it said that’s they guy? Wrong.

(5) Not the issue. The issue isn’t how many guilty people are properly convicted. The issue is, when an innocent person does get wrongfully convicted, what’s causing that, and how can we prevent it from happening again? When 72% of your wrongful convictions that you know to be wrongful because the DNA says so were based on a false identification? That’s a very strong correlation. Combined with the fact (sorry, it’s true) that juries do put a whole heck of a lot of weight on that false I.D., and it’s safe to say we’ve got causation as well. (Whereas 100% of wrongful convictions may have taken place in a courtroom with a judge, a very high correlation indeed, but there’s zero evidence that the presence of a judge played any effect on the jury’s verdict, so we can disregard that one.)

(6) Intellectually dishonest. You’re saying “you guys haven’t disproven all these other cases yet, so let’s presume those IDs were good.” Ignoring the fact that only a small teeny tiny microscopic percentage of cases where the defendant insists upon his innocence are ever taken up by folks like the Innocence Project. You’re also comparing the number of hits in the sample size to the overall population being studied. The fact is, an obscenely high number of hits in this statistically significant sample probably translates to an obscenely high number of hits overall.

(7) Fine. You’re not allowed to use DNA experts, either… Seriously? Draw up a timeline of courts adopting real meaningful reforms here and show me how it’s moving too fast.

(8) Apparently the latest fad = decades of research, and basic Science 101 recommendations for how to conduct an experiment that have been understood for ages. None of this is rocket science. None of this is remotely eyebrow raising to anyone with a genuine science background. If you really don’t think double-blind studies are proven to be effective, that they eliminate intentional and unintentional suggestion by the examiner, then you really really shouldn’t have skipped that day in 8th-grade Science class. As for simultaneous vs. sequential, you are ALMOST RIGHT!! Because sequential arrays DO result in fewer correct identifications, along with fewer false ones. Sequential arrays only solve the problem of relative-judgment witnesses who compare the faces in the lineup to each other. They’re best used with children, lower-IQ people, and all the people whose brains really work this way only they don’t know it and neither do you. All of whom, it so happens, are the ones making the MAJORITY of false identifications. Losing a few correct IDs (because during sequential procedures we all tend to raise our threshold for certainty, worrying that a better match might be coming up) is a small price to pay for ensuring so many innocents don’t have their lives and liberty and futures taken away by mistake. Isn’t it? And simultaneous lineups are only as effective once you’ve adopted the suggested reforms, including some you didn’t discuss.

This all sounds like another one of those prosecutors thwarting justice in the name of inertia.

My final recommendation to her would to be to allow herself to be receptive to the idea that innocent people do sometimes get convicted, that bad identifications do sometimes cause this, and that there are solutions that can prevent such injustices, can ensure that the cops don’t put the wrong guy in jail, can ensure that the real perp doesn’t remain free to do it again, don’t cost hardly anything, and are easy to institute. And if that’s the case, then why the heck are you so opposed to it? Do you want those preventable injustices to occur?

Because that’s kinda how you came off.

Q&A Roundup Part 4

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The officer gets his overtime. The defendant gets his freedom. But the victim doesn’t get his property back. If someone steals all of the money in my bank account, the police find a paper trail that shows who did it, but the courts suppress the evidence because the evidence was acquired unlawfully, then can I still sue them in civil court to get my money back or does the money become the thief’s property for all intents and purposes? Or is there a third option that I do not know about?

The victim’s reaction is irrelevant to criminal law.

Criminal law is about whether the state can punish an offender. The victim isn’t a party to the case, but is merely a source of evidence. The prosecutor doesn’t represent the victim’s interests in restitution, but the state’s interest in punishment. Restitution may be ordered as part of a sentence, but it doesn’t have to be.

But just as the victim’s rights aren’t part of the criminal case, whether the criminal case pans out or not has little bearing on the victim’s rights. Even if the criminal case gets dropped or dismissed, the victim can still exercise his rights. He seeks justice, not in criminal court where he is not a party, but in civil court.

It is civil court, not criminal court, that is about righting wrongs. If someone harms you, you can sue them in civil court for money damages to “make you whole” and compensate you for the harm. If someone stole a particular thing, you can ask for a court order compelling them to give that thing back.

The outcome — or even existence — of a criminal case doesn’t have much effect on exercising your rights in civil court. Different rules apply, they have different standards of proof, and they really are like apples and oranges, so what happens in one court doesn’t really carry over to the other one. It would be unjust to deny people their right to civil justice just because a prosecutor exercised her discretion not to prosecute someone, or because evidence strong enough for a civil case wasn’t enough to meet the higher burden in a criminal one. That’s how someone like O.J. Simpson can be acquitted and unpunished by the criminal courts, and found responsible and liable for money damages for the same act in civil court.

In the example you’re responding to, the guy apparently stole a coin collection. We don’t know that the collection itself was ever recovered by the police. If it was, it was probably saved to be used in evidence. Regardless of the outcome of the case, police departments typically have a procedure for property owners to reclaim their stuff afterwards. If the thief had already sold the coins, however, there’s nothing for the police to return, so the victim would have to sue the thief for the value of what was stolen.

People do forget sometimes that civil law and criminal law are two entirely different and separate things (heck, I never knew this myself until after I started law school). That can lead to confusion when they expect the criminal law to enforce their rights against the offender. In criminal law it is the offender who has rights, not the victim. The only “justice” a victim typically gets from a criminal case is a sense of retribution — the offender got harmed, too. For the more meaningful justice of being restored or at least compensated, you need to take it to civil court. That’s what it’s for.

A Fundamental Disconnect

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Your smartphone has a lot of private stuff on it. Passwords, photos, messages, files. You want to keep it private. So it’s a good thing that companies are building better encryption into their phones, right?

Not according to law enforcement. They complain a lot about encryption. Encryption is pretty good, these days, which means law enforcement can’t easily get stuff that’s encrypted. It used to be you have to be kinda tech-savvy yourself to encrypt your stuff. But now phones are encrypting your stuff by default. Cops, prosecutors, spies, and regulators want those passwords, photos, messages, files. And now they can’t get them. They’re frustrated. Like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, telling her dad to make Willy Wonka give her what she wants, they shout at lawmakers to make the nasty companies give them access. Maybe they don’t go “if you loved me, you would” (though they might), but echoing the rallying cry of governmental overreach everywhere, they scream “think of the children!”

Seriously, that’s their argument. Eric Holder, our recently-departed Attorney General, cried “think of the children!” last autumn at the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online conference. Law enforcement can do its job while “adequately protecting” your privacy (whatever he thinks that means), he said — but “when a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”


Damn those evil, evil companies for helping child abusers!

It’s a common refrain. Just the other day, a Massachusetts district attorney testified before Congress that “when unaccountable corporate interests place crucial evidence beyond the legitimate reach of our courts, they are in fact placing those who rape, defraud, assault and even kill in a position of profound advantage over victims and society.”

Damn those evil, evil corporations!

What law enforcement needs, they say, is a “backdoor” — they demand and insist that tech companies build flaws into their encryption, so that government can get those secret files and catch bad guys. We can trust law enforcement to only use those encryption flaws for a good cause. And it’s not like any of those bad guys will be able to use those flaws to commit more crimes.


Of course this is pure nonsense. And fortunately there was at least one congressman present on Wednesday who knows it.

California Rep. Ted Liu called B.S., in no uncertain terms. Tech companies aren’t doing this to help criminals, he said, but to protect their customers. “Because the public is demanding it.” And by the way, the public is demanding it because it “does not want an out-of-control surveillance state.” That’s right, the public is demanding protection from the government.

Which is what the Fourth Amendment’s all about, after all. Protecting our privacy from government intrusion.

This may seem obvious to you. That you have basic privacy interests in your stuff. And just because the government wants to see it, that doesn’t mean they should be able to.

But law enforcement doesn’t see it that way. Nope. Cops and prosecutors and spies and regulators honestly believe they are entitled to it. If evidence of a crime exists, they honest to God think there oughta be a way for them to get it.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that’s driving this debate. Because they’re wrong.


Let’s set aside the colossally stupid assumption that only good guys will be able to exploit backdoors to encryption. But only after noting that this alone demonstrates an enormous lack of understanding about how data tech works. That the folks who are supposed to be protecting us from malicious hackers want to give those very crooks a way to steal our private data, our bank accounts, our private photos — this alone should be alarming as hell.

Who’s accusing whom of aiding and abetting the bad guys?

But let’s set that aside. Let’s focus on that disconnect. That fundamental misunderstanding of the role of law enforcement, of the Constitution they’re sworn to uphold, and what law enforcement is “entitled” to.


Here’s the deal: Law enforcement isn’t entitled to a damn thing.

Yes, we’d love for them to be able to get all the evidence they lawfully can. Absolutely. If there’s evidence of a crime, and the government can find it without violating anyone’s rights, then by all means the government should do so. Society wants criminals to be punished for their crimes, and that can’t happen without evidence to prove that they did it.

Society wants that. But it demands that government not violate our rights in the process. There’s nothing in the Constitution granting law enforcement the right to collect evidence. But there’s plenty in there specifically protecting individuals from the government, specifically limiting what the government can do when it tries to gather evidence. Why? Because although catching and punishing the bad guys would be nice, it’s not as important to us as making sure the government doesn’t use its awesome power to do bad things to us.

We’ve balanced it nicely with our Exclusionary Rule. If law enforcement crosses the line, then they’re not allowed to use evidence they got by crossing that line. But they can still use the other stuff they got lawfully. This encourages them to gather all they lawfully can, without any fear of repercussions, and only takes away stuff they shouldn’t have had in the first place. And our courts bend over backward to say evidence was lawfully gathered.

But not everything can be lawfully gathered. It just can’t. Just because it exists, that doesn’t mean the government can see it.

“But private actors can see it!” you hear law enforcement cry. “Where’s the justice in a system that prevents the police from seeing stuff a civilian or a company could see?”

One: You are also civilians. No matter how much you arm yourselves with military gear and dress up like soldiers, police are not the military. You’re us. We’re not “them.”

Two: As Representative Ted Liu pointed out in a strong rebuke to the D.A. at that hearing, “here’s the difference: Apple and Google don’t have coercive power. District attorneys do, the FBI does, the NSA does.”

It’s simple. Private actors aren’t restricted by the Fourth Amendment, because private actors aren’t the government. They can’t throw you in jail. Maybe they can sue you or ding your credit rating, but the government can destroy your life and even take it away. The Constitution tries very hard to limit what the government can do with all that power. And as Rep. Liu concluded, “it’s very simple to draw a privacy balance when it comes to law enforcement and privacy: just follow the damn Constitution.”

So no. You can’t whine and cry that you’re not allowed to see things the rest of us can see. We need to be protected from you. Our founding fathers knew it. The Constitution you’re sworn to uphold exists to protect us from you. From you, not from Google.


“But what about the children!”

What about them?

“What about a kid who’s in danger of being horribly abused by a bad guy?”

And you have his phone, but not… him?

“Didn’t you hear us? A kid could have been horribly abused!”

That would be sickening and awful, and we’d love it if you caught the guy who did it.

“Well, what if the evidence we need to prove the bad guy did it is encrypted on his phone?”

And you’d know this… without having other evidence?

“For the sake of argument, yes! My God, we won’t be able to punish the man who made this child suffer!”

And this is different from every other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“We know it exists! Probably!”

And this is different from any other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“But tech companies can design their products so we can find the evidence! Government should compel them to do that!”

Well, how about private safes and security vaults, should those manufacturers be forced to design inherent flaws so cops can open them easily?

“That’s a great idea! Yes!”

Wait, I didn’t-

“Yes! And lawyers and doctors and priests — we should be able to force them to tell us what the suspect told them! And…”

You’re starting to scare me. This is the kind of government overreach we’re afraid of. Don’t you get it?

“But think of the children!”

Inexpert Testimony

Monday, April 27th, 2015

The purpose of a trial is not to discover the truth. Sorry. Whether civil or criminal, bench or jury, the purpose of a trial is to decide on an “official version” of the facts. The purpose of the justice system is to make an enforceable, hopefully final, decision about a dispute. The system does this by applying the law to the facts, and determining what the appropriate outcome is. The system already knows what the law is, presumably. But it can’t apply that law — it can’t do anything — until it has a set of facts to work with. We’d like the official facts to be as close to the truth as possible, of course, but one way or another we need to decide what they are.

That’s what the jury is for. That’s all the jury is for, most of the time: to be the “finder of fact.” Obviously, there are competing versions of the facts to choose from, or else there wouldn’t be a trial. The jury has to decide which facts the justice system will get to use. (And as Scott Greenfield pointed out this morning, once that official version of the facts has been determined, the system is extremely loath to revisit them. These are the facts we’ll rely on for damages, for sentencing, for appeals, forever.)

The jury’s job is important. It is sacred. The idea that twelve honest members of the community can assess the evidence and figure out what was proven and what was not proven is integral to our concept of justice. And in a jury trial it’s important that only the jury gets to perform its sacred task. We don’t let anyone else decide the facts for them. That would mean replacing the jury of twelve with a jury of one. We tightly control who gets to testify, what questions they can be asked, and what they’re allowed to say. We limit the evidence only to relevant testimony, and try to exclude categories of evidence that are too unreliable to use — especially evidence that cannot be challenged.

And we certainly don’t let witnesses or lawyers vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony. “You have to believe this because, in my opinion, it’s true” is not something you can say to a juror.

Unless you’re an expert witness, that is. Then you get to not only opine on what evidence means, on facts the jury needs to decide, but also on the reliability of your opinion. Ideally, an expert is an objective witness with no stake in the proceedings, who has knowledge of a subject that is just too complex or arcane to expect of jurors. Whatever they’re testifying about, they’re needed because it’s not common knowledge. So the expert gets to summarize the arcane subject, draw factual conclusions for the jury, and also give his opinion about how reliable he is — how confident he is in his conclusions.

When he gives his expert opinion, the expert witness does the jury’s job for them. The jury needn’t assess his reliability — the judge called him an expert, and the expert himself said the basis for his opinion was reliable. The jury doesn’t need to assess his summary or his conclusions about the evidence — if they could do that, they wouldn’t have needed an expert in the first place. And besides, the expert gave them his expert opinion of how reliable that conclusion is. The expert witness can easily become a jury of one.

So we are really really careful about who we allow to testify as an expert witness, and strictly limit what they can testify about.



Of course there are exceptions. And of course they’re mainly to be found in criminal trials, where the stakes are highest, and the jury’s role is most important.

One exception you’ve probably heard about before. [Heck, I’ve probably griped about it here a couple of times, only just as I can’t be bothered to edit these posts before I post them, I can’t be arsed right now to look up whether I’ve written on it already.] This is the exception for expert police testimony. Instead of establishing valid academic and professional credentials to ensure that this expert knows what the heck he’s talking about, and instead of having him specify the resources and data on which he relies (and thus give the other side a chance to challenge the validity of those sources), we pretty much let the police witness provide his own opinion about whether he’s an expert, and then we call him an expert, and then we let him tell the jury what the evidence means.

Cop: “I was trained by other police officers about how drug deals work. I’ve participated in lots of arrests that involved drugs. In my opinion, I am super-familiar with how drug deals work.”

Judge: “Okay, jury, this guy’s an expert.”

Cop: “In my expert opinion, those apparently innocent bits of evidence really mean the defendant sold that other guy some drugs.”

Jury: “Well, that’s that. When’s lunch?”

It’s self-serving testimony by the government, deciding for the jury the ultimate issue of the case. It’s not from a disinterested witness, but usually from the same officer who made the arrest. He’s telling the jury that, in his opinion, he was right. And the judge is telling the jury he’s giving this opinion as an expert. The witness isn’t giving any details of what he’s basing this expert opinion on, and so its reliability cannot be challenged. All that’s happening is he’s getting to vouch for his own expertise, and the government is getting to vouch for the reliability of its evidence.

But this isn’t what I wanted to complain about today. At least the officer was first screened and offered as an expert. Eyewitnesses, on the other hand…


The eyewitness gets to give expert opinion testimony without even being admitted as an expert.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate. On average, it’s no better than a coin toss. More than 3/4 of the death-row exonerations to date have been from convictions based on eyewitness testimony. Humans just don’t see everything as accurately as we think we do, our memories are malleable as hell, and we’re really bad at pointing out the culprit in a lineup. But boy howdy are we confident! We think our memories really happened, even when they’re demonstrably false. We think we’re right. How can we not? But we’re wrong an awful lot.

Confidence has zero to do with the reliability of an eyewitness. Almost every eyewitness is confident that they’re remembering things accurately. Even when they’re wrong.

And yet, when an eyewitness says they’re confident that they’re right, it has a huge effect on juries. When a witness vouches for her own testimony, studies show that jurors tend to believe her. The effect is powerful — it is almost impossible to overstate it. In fact, even when a witness has contradicted herself on the stand, and has been shown to be clearly unreliable, if she tells the jury that she is very confident that she’s right, the jurors will say they found her credible.

Courts also put a lot of stock in an eyewitness’s opinion of her own accuracy. The more confident the witness feels, the more likely she’ll be allowed to testify. The Supreme Court itself has gone out of its way to say that eyewitness confidence is a factor that should be considered when assessing the reliability of her testimony.

In other words, if an eyewitness says “I’m sure I’m right,” the jury’s not only going to be more likely to believe her, but they’re supposed to believe it more.

How stupid is that?

This is opinion testimony. The eyewitness is giving an opinion on an issue of fact — the reliability of her testimony. This is a decision the jury needs to make. She doesn’t have an unusual background that lets her assess this any better than the ordinary juror. On the contrary, because it’s her own memory and perceptions, she’s the one person least qualified to give a reliable assessment of its accuracy. But she’s the one who gets to tell the jury how accurate she is.

Not only that, but in many states the defense is not allowed to even present their own expert testimony to rebut her opinion. No expert opinion that this eyewitness got it wrong. (Two main reasons: one, eyewitness unreliability is considered such common knowledge –ha! — that expert testimony is unnecessary; and two, general testimony about how people in general get it wrong isn’t evidence that this person got it wrong.) All that can be done is cross-examine to find inconsistencies and reasons to argue later that the witness was wrong. But that’s not very helpful, because again, when an eyewitness testifies that she has high confidence in her accuracy, those inconsistencies and other indicia of unreliability get ignored, and the jury tends to believe her regardless.

It’s not just a confrontation issue, but an evidentiary one as well. Witness confidence just isn’t a reliable indicator of witness accuracy. We’re wrong far too much of the time. In general the rules of evidence exclude categories of evidence that have a substantial risk of being unreliable. Everywhere else, we exclude evidence that cannot be challenged. If we were consistent, then, our rules of evidence would preclude witness assessments of their own accuracy rather than encouraging them.

It is the jury’s job to assess whether this witness got things right, and nobody else’s. Yet we go out of our way to take that decision away from them, and let the witness herself decide whether her testimony is correct. She’s giving an expert opinion on the reliability of her evidence. And not only is she not an expert, she is in fact the one person least qualified to assess the reliability of her memory.

But we let her say it. She gets to give her inexpert testimony, and do the jury’s job for them. And that snapping sound we hear right afterwards? That’s the jury’s brains turning off.

Is Ray Kelly a Complete Idiot?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

As we all know, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. This should have come as no surprise.

Our Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from stopping you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are up to no good. Police officers were stopping people without any reason to believe they might be up to anything. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

Once you’ve been stopped, Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from frisking you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous. Police officers were frisking people without any reason to believe they might be armed. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

It is also unconstitutional for the government to single people out for this kind of treatment based on their race. Police officers were stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic people almost exclusively. On purpose. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

These were not the random errors of wayward officers, but institutionalized behavior directed and commanded by the police department. It was a program. That the NYPD has been given an injunction to knock it off should surprise nobody.

And yet Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has done nothing but act shocked and offended ever since.

Kelly made the rounds of TV news shows yesterday, angrily asserting Judge Scheindlin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and claiming that this ruling is going to make violent crime go up. He argued firmly that the stop-and-frisk program is just good policing. It works. It’s effective. And now the NYPD can’t do it any more. It works. It’s effective. And so they should be allowed to keep doing it.

He firmly believes that, just because something is effective, the police should be allowed to do it.

This is the same guy who’s gunning for Secretary of Homeland Security. You thought you were living in a cyberpunk dystopia now? Just you wait until someone like him is in charge.


Forget whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep crime down.

That doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to do it. Effective does not mean constitutional.

The government is a mighty thing, with overwhelming power and force at its disposal. But one of the most beautiful things about America is that our government is constrained. It cannot use its might against you unless the Constitution says it can. There are plenty of things it might like to do, but it isn’t allowed to. (People being people, government folks will try to bend the rules or skirt them or even ignore them. Hoping nobody will notice, hoping nobody will say anything, hoping they’ll get away with it. Very often even believing they’re doing nothing wrong, and believing that in fact they’re doing the right thing. Still, the fact remains that they’re no allowed to do it.)

Of course there is a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff. If we gave the government unlimited power to snoop into our homes and search our persons, they would certainly catch a lot more criminals. If we took away the exclusionary rule and rules of evidence, they’d convict more of them, too. Ignore innocents wrongly convicted — let’s presume that the police would be inhumanly perfect about all this. It is a certainty that, without that pesky Bill of Rights, more wrongdoers would get punished, and more severely.

But we have decided that a lot of things are more important than catching and punishing criminals. Privacy is more important. Free will is more important. Fair hearings are more important. We as a society are willing to accept a certain level of crime — even violent and horrific crime — as a consequence of protecting these rights.

And so the government is forbidden from violating those rights, no matter how effective such a violation might be.

Kelly does not get this.

This is not rocket science. This is not obscure ivory-tower theory. This is a basic core principle every rookie police officer should know. Is Ray Kelly a complete idiot, here?


Kelly defends targeting Blacks and Hispanics because statistically, they commit a disproportionate amount of the crime in this city. And statistically, they do. But that doesn’t justify stopping individuals just because they happen to have been born into those groups.

Just as “effective” does not mean “constitutional,” the statistics of a general population don’t give you reason to stop that particular individual over there. His being Black does not give you reasonable suspicion. You need reasonable suspicion to believe that this guy is up to something. Ours is a system of individual justice. You need a reason to suspect this particular person, not a belief about people like him in general.

Again, this is stuff you learn your first week at the Police Academy. It’s pretty basic.

If the statistics showed that people of Italian descent committed a disproportionate amount of bribery, or that Jewish people committed a disproportionate number of frauds, would that give the police reason to target Italian or Jewish people just because of their heritage? Of course not. It would be as absurd as it would be abhorrent.

And yet that’s essentially what Kelly’s saying about the racial discrimination.

Does he not see how blatantly wrong this is?

Is he a complete idiot?


You sort of have to hope he is.

Because if he’s not an idiot, then he knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows exactly why he’s wrong. Not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong and contrary to everything this country stands for. And he’s still saying it. Hoping to convince you he’s right. Hoping you’ll let him continue to have those powers.

Pray he’s only an idiot.

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

Confused about the outcome

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

You’re not the only one to ask, that’s for sure.  The short answer is this:

  1. The prosecution had the burden to remove all reasonable doubt from the jury’s minds — both that Zimmerman had committed every element of the crimes charged, and that he had not acted in self-defense.
  2. This was a very difficult case for them to prove.  Their evidence was iffy and called for a lot of speculation.  Their arguments were easily shot down by the defense.  And the defense view of the case was fairly consistent with the evidence.  At the end of the day, there was plenty of room for doubt about a lot of important things.
  3. With all that doubt, the jurors found that the state had not met its burden, which meant that they had to say “not guilty.”

Different people are confused and upset about this for different reasons.

Some are confused about what the evidence was, how the law applied to it, and where all the reasonable doubt came from.  I can try to go over all that with illustrations later, if you like. (I don’t mind, it’d be fun.)

Others are confused because they think the jury’s job was to decide what really happened, rather than to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The jury’s verdict doesn’t mean “George Zimmerman is innocent” or “George Zimmerman was justified to shoot in self-defense.”  All it means is “the prosecution did not prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and “the prosecution did not prove it wasn’t self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Also, in cases like this, a lot of people take sides without knowing (or even caring) what the actual evidence was, or how the law applies to it.

Instead, a lot of people take sides, for and against, because they want to further some sort of political agenda.  There is a narrative they want the case to tell, regardless of what the facts really were.  It’s all about their cause, not the case.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict doesn’t fit their narrative.

And a lot of other people take sides because they get the sense that one or the other is the “right” side to be on.  Sort of a knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd sort of thing.  They may not really know what was going on, but they feel that they are on the side of good and justice.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict isn’t what the crowd had led them to expect.

Yes, juries can and do come back with bizarre verdicts that make you wonder how many brain cells they had between them.  But this just isn’t one of those cases.  The jury’s verdict was not at all unsurprising, given what came out during the trial.  It would be very easy for people of ordinary judgment to believe that the government came nowhere near proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged.  But that jury had good reason to come back with a “not guilty” verdict after that trial.


You wanna hear something shocking?  I don’t think the prosecutors really (more…)

On this latest Miranda thing…

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

So after catching one of the guys thought to have committed the Boston Marathon bombing (and a string of violent acts thereafter), the government said they weren’t going to read him his rights. Not just yet. Invoking the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule, they said they wanted a chance to find out who he was working with, where other bombs might be, etc., before telling him he’s allowed to clam up.

Predictably, a lot of people were upset about this. But why?

Yes, it was wrong of the administration to say that. But not for the reasons everyone’s saying. Not because it’s further eroding our rights (it’s not), but because it’s just stupid.

It conflates intelligence with evidence — stupid. It misses the whole point of Miranda — stupid. It defeats the purpose of intel — stupid. And pisses off those who love the Constitution — stupid.

And of course, it’s nothing new.

About three years ago, the Obama administration made it DOJ policy to permit “unwarned interrogation” not only in situations involving immediate public safety (“where’s the bomb?”), but also cases where cops believe getting intel outweighs your right to remain silent.

The 2010 memorandum states:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

On top of that, the Obama administration wanted Congress to specifically pass legislation allowing longer interrogations before Miranda need be invoked. (A brilliant writer blogged about that memo a couple of years ago, concluding that it was “An Unnecessary Rule.”)

The administration is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Miranda does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. The Fifth Amendment does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. They can interrogate people all they want, in any way they want, and the Constitution doesn’t say jack about it. But if they force you to incriminate yourself against your own will, they’re just not allowed to use those statements against you to prove your guilt in a criminal proceeding. That doesn’t mean they can’t force you to incriminate yourself, and it doesn’t mean they can’t use those statements for other purposes.

But the government wants to be able to do both. It wants to be able to override your free will, force you to condemn yourself, and use your words both to prevent future attacks (laudable) and to convict you so the State can punish you (contemptible).

Their saying this out loud is idiotic, because everyone sees how contemptible it is, and the government looks even more like an enemy of the public, rather than its protector. And of course giving a heads-up to the real bad guys about what we’ll be doing. (And announcing it in a specific case, as they did this week, just lets everyone in the bomber’s organization know that we’re learning everything that guy could tell us. Stupid. You never want the enemy to know how much you know.)

But it’s also stupid because it misses the ENTIRE POINT of Miranda.

Sorry to break this to you, but Miranda isn’t about protecting your rights. It never was.

Miranda is about giving the police a free pass. It always has been.

The Fifth Amendment is there to make sure we don’t have another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its power to override your free will, and make you confess to a crime so it can punish you. Lots of confessions are purely voluntary. In fact, most probably are. But sometimes the government has to force it out of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

But it’s hard for courts to tell voluntary confessions from involuntary ones. They have to look at facts and assess things on a case-by-case basis. That’s hard. And it’s hard for police to know if they’re crossing the line, when the line is different for every individual. So the Miranda rule creates an easy line that applies to everyone:

Say the magic words, and the law presumes that the confession was voluntary.

See how easy that was? Not hard. Easy.

All a cop has to do is recite the Miranda litany as they’re taking a suspect into custody, and BAM! they get to interrogate all they want, and everything the guy says can be used in evidence at his trial.

It is hard to imagine a more pro-law-enforcement rule. In one stroke, Miranda dispensed with actual voluntariness, and replaced it with “as a matter of law” pretend voluntariness.

And yet law enforcement — even our nation’s top officials, who went to law school and everything — astoundingly persist in thinking Miranda is bad for them. They think that, if you mirandize someone, they’ll shut up, and you’ll lose all that delicious intel and lovely evidence. (NYPD officers are actually trained NOT to mirandize people on arrest, for this very reason. Yeah, TV ain’t real life.)

But here’s the kicker: People don’t clam up when they’ve been read their rights. The people who clam up remain silent regardless of whether they’ve been mirandized or not. In fact, there is evidence that people are MORE likely to talk once they’ve been read their rights. They don’t know what those rights mean, but they know they’ve got them, and TV has conditioned them to expect the magic words. So when they hear them, they relax. All is well. Their rights are being acknowledged. And they start blabbing.

So not only do the magic words let you use all those statements, compelled or not, but they actually get the statements flowing.

So wanting to hold off on saying them is just stupid. Counterproductive. Idiotic.

So there’s lots of reasons to dislike what the government is saying in this case. But eroding our rights just isn’t one of them.

You lost those rights in 1966.

Not Ready for Prime Time: Brain-Scan Reliability in Question

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Almost from our first post, we’ve written here about developments in brain-scan technology and its applicability to criminal law (see here, here, here and here, for example). So needless to say, the past nine days have been of great interest, as the research behind neuroimaging’s claims has come into hot dispute.

Now, just because our motto is “truth, justice and the scientific method,” that doesn’t make us qualified to assess the merits of the underlying science. Our observations on the actual science wouldn’t be worth the pixels. But fortunately, as with most such disputes, the issue isn’t so much the data as the math — the statistical analysis being used to make sense of the data. And we’re somewhat confident that we can at least report on such issues without getting them too wrong.

So briefly what’s going on is this:

First, lots of neuroimaging papers out there, some very influential, see apparent connections between brain activity at point X and mental state A. But what are the odds your reading of X was just a fluke, and the real spot is somewhere else, over at Z? If you do enough tests, you’re going to see X every now and then just by chance. So you have to figure out what the chances are that X would be a random result, instead of the real thing, and apply that correction to your statistical analysis. As it happens, however, for a long time the neuroimaging folks weren’t using an accurate correction. Instead, they were applying a lax rule-of-thumb that didn’t really apply. It’s since been shown that using the lax math can result in apparent connections to variables that didn’t even exist at the time.

On top of all that, as neuroscientist Daniel Bor mentions in his excellent (and much more detailed) discussion here, there’s reason to suspect that (more…)

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Prompted by a tweet from Scott Greenfield this morning, we read a short editorial the New York Times did a couple of days ago, arguing that federal and state prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies, in order to limit Brady violations and promote justice. We’d missed it the first time around, because … well, because we never bother to read NYT editorials.

This one is decent enough, so far as it goes. The Times points out that it’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether something is material enough to disclose under Brady, and so defendants very often don’t learn of facts that might have been favorable to them. With full disclosure, perhaps fewer defendants who are over-charged or improperly charged would plead guilty, and perhaps fewer wrongful convictions might result.

Yeah, but …

Here’s the thing: “Open file” policies are rarely that. Prosecutors’ offices with open file policies rarely (if ever) make their complete file available to the defense. More often “open file” just means they comply with their existing discovery obligations without putting up too much of a fight.

Prosecutors in general are unwilling to engage in true open file discovery, and for reasons that are anything but nefarious. It would be like playing high-stakes poker in a game where you and only you have to show all of your cards, all of the time. Unless you have four aces and a joker every hand, that’s a losing strategy. Defendants will be able to see all the weaknesses of the evidence with plenty of time to exploit them. People who “should have been” convicted will go free.

In practice, prosecutors only show their hand if it’s going to make the defendant fold. Or to the extent that it will persuade the defendant to fold. Show the ace, but don’t bother showing the 2, 6, 7 and jack.

Of course, it’s a misplaced concern to worry that people who “should have been convicted” will go free. If the evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it doesn’t matter whether they did it or not, they don’t deserve to be convicted. It’s not even correct to think of whether they deserve to be convicted — the concern is whether the State is entitled to punish them. If the government’s evidence, all of it, is too weak to convict, then the State doesn’t get to punish. (What the defendant deserves only enters into it when asking how much punishment to inflict.)

The proper concern is whether (more…)

Correct, but Wrong: SCOTUS on Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In this Information Age, it is hard to grasp sometimes that everybody does not know everything. And yet it is so. It is common knowledge, for example, that dinosaur fossils are the bones of creatures that lived scores of millions of years ago, that terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that eyewitness identification testimony is statistically as reliable as a ’78 Chevy. And yet there are tons of people who sincerely believe that fossils are just a few thousand years old, that the U.S. government conducted 9-11, and that an eyewitness I.D. is the be-all-and-end-all of Truth.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump the I.D. believers in with 9-11 conspiracy theorists, Genesis literalists, truthers and the like. The others are sort of fringe-y. But if you put 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, of good intelligence and sound common sense, and the victim points dead at the defendant and says “there is no doubt in my mind, THAT is the man who raped me…” you can almost hear all twelve minds slamming shut. They’ve heard all they need to hear. So far as they’re concerned, this case is over.

This despite the fact that study after study after study reinforces the fact that eyewitness testimony sucks.

And innocent people go to jail — or worse — because of it.

So you can imagine how keen the legal world was to get the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry v. New Hampshire, which came down yesterday. Perry, identified by an eyewitness as someone she’d seen breaking into cars, argued that Due Process required a judicial hearing on the reliability of that testimony before it could be admitted at trial.

Which was the exact wrong thing to argue.

Due Process requires that the government makes sure that it does not do things that make its identification procedures unreliable. It does not require that a judge do the jury’s job. Particularly when that job — weighing the reliability of a given bit of testimony — is incredibly fact-specific.

And especially given all the evidence of all the various factors that go into making eyewitness testimony unreliable — racial differences, time lapse, focus of attention, lighting, familiarity, stress, presence of a weapon, etc. — what judge in his right mind is going to want to be the one deciding whether this particular eyewitness’s memory is good enough?

So it’s hardly any surprise that the Supreme Court balked at Perry’s Due Process argument. By a vote of 8-1 (former prosecutor Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, none better to know the power of the EW ID) the Supremes held that, unless law enforcement is alleged to have gotten the I.D. under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances, there’s no Due Process issue and certainly no reason for a pre-trial hearing on reliability.


No, what Perry could have argued for is either (more…)

Straight Talk

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011


“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

This is not something you want your lawyer to be asking you in the middle of trial.  Or worse yet, in the cells after you’ve lost your trial.  And yet it is a perpetual ostenato heard in every criminal courthouse.  The head-shaking lament of lawyers whose own clients deprived them of the very information that could have changed the outcome of the case.

It is only human nature, of course, to minimize one’s own culpability.  Each one of us is the hero in our own story, not the villain.  If bad things are happening to you, it’s not because you did something wrong, but because you are the victim of a misunderstanding, of a vindictive lying accuser, of an overzealous prosecutor.  People start rationalizing their conduct before it even happens.  It’s just the way our brains work.  When speaking to another human being about something that might get you in trouble, it takes an almost inhuman amount of trust to be completely frank.  Even when speaking to an ally.  Even when you know that this ally needs to understand what really happened before he can help.  The urge to shade the truth, to make things sound more innocent than they really are, is always there.

It’s a simple truth.  So only a foolish lawyer ignores it.

A wise lawyer with sound judgment — the kind you want defending you — is going to be skeptical of what you tell him.  No offense.  Whether it’s your first meeting or your fiftieth, his bullshit meter is going to be turned on.

That’s because what wins cases is preparation.  Knowing the facts (and applicable law) better than the other guy.  Knowing better what happened.  Not having a more innocent-sounding story.  Facts.

When your lawyer defends you, he assesses the data in front of him to see if there are any legal arguments that might help.  He analyzes the data to see what the actual risks and opportunities are.  He bases his strategies and arguments on that data.  At trial, he weaves his stories and persuades juries with that same data.  The more — and more accurate — the data, the more he has to work with, and the more he can do for you.

This is the case even if the truth is ugly.  In fact, especially when the truth is ugly.  The more (more…)

Even Worse than Eyewitness IDs: The Police Sketch

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Everyone knows that eyewitness identifications are completely reliable — that is, you can count on them to be wrong.  (Everyone does know this, right?)  If the person being identified is a stranger, the chances of a correct I.D. are slim to none.  There are lots of reasons for this.  Eyewitnesses rarely have or take the time to study and memorize a person’s features.  People of one race are awful at identifying people of another race, largely because the parts of the face which differ from person to person are different from race to race — which is why people of another race often “all look alike,” because you’re looking for cues in parts of the face that don’t vary much in that other race.  And people just generally suck at remembering details consistently and accurately.

Still, sometimes an eyewitness description is all you’ve got.  And so what if the eyewitness didn’t see every detail of the face — at least they can describe the parts they did see.  Trained sketch artists take the partial descriptions provided by eyewitnesses, and using sophisticated software they can put together composite sketches that show what the bad guy probably looks like.

We’ve all seen them on the TV news, and various crime dramas would lead one to believe that they’re pretty useful.  And now with IdentiKit software, the details can be adjusted here and there until the witness goes “that’s him!”

But we never hear, after the fact, whether the drawing wound up being all that accurate.  There’s a good reason for this.  The odds of the drawing being accurate are so low, they are below statistical significance.  You’ve probably noticed this yourself, on the rare occasion when a police sketch has later been released with a photo of the culprit — the resemblance even then is usually pretty slim.

A thorough study of composite sketches by Charlie Frowd, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, had participants study a photograph of an individual for a full minute, then describe the face for a trained police sketch artist.  How well could people then recognize the faces in these sketches?  The recognition rate was as low as 3%.

Three percent.

MIT scientists Pawan Sinha, Benjamin Balas, Yuri Ortrovsky and Richard Russell have a great article here that describes problems with composite sketches and ways to make the software better.

The image above was taken from that article.  A trained and experienced IdentiKit officer was given actual photographs of celebrities with distinctly recognizable faces.  He was given all the time in the world — no pressures — and worked directly from the photos themselves instead of having to rely on another person’s descriptions.  And those sketches you see up there are the best the software could do.

Well, maybe the problem is with what the IdentiKit tries to do.  After all, it just works on individual features one at a time.  The eyes, nose, mouth, etc. are worked on in isolation.  Humans don’t look at features in isolation, though.  So there’s another kit out there called EvoFit, that’s more like a photo array that gets to evolve.  The witness is shown 72 random faces.  She picks out the six that most resemble the culprit.  The facial features of those six are then scrambled and recombined to make 72 new pictures.  The witness then picks out, again, the six who most resemble the culprit.  The process is repeated once more to get an image that pretty much matches what the witness saw in her mind.

Now, there are tons of problems with this method.  The suggestivity of showing pictures is pronounced — when witnesses choose photos from an array, they often choose not the one that closest resembles the culprit, but instead pick the one that looks different from the rest — and when a picture has been chosen, that image often replaces the image in the witness’ memory.  She now remembers that face as being the face of her attacker, even though it wasn’t.  This method of scrambling digital faces poses the same problems.

Still, it is more reliable than the IdentiKit.  Instead of a 3% recognition rate, the EvoKit attains a whopping 25% recognition rate.

One in four.


People suck at identifying strangers.  Period.  And yet in-court eyewitness identifications are the nuclear bombs of trial.  The victim points at the defendant and says he’s the one what done it, and you can see the jurors’ minds turning off.  So far as they’re concerned, this trial’s over.  The defense lawyer’s got a lot of work to do, now, to overcome that.

What would be just and fair, of course, would be to allow some evidence of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications in general, and the reasons why IDs can be wrong, so that the defense can tie them to specific testimony by the eyewitness to show that she made the same mistakes.  Not asking the jury to make a logical fallacy that, because it happens a lot in general, it must have happened here as well.  But actually drawing the jury’s attention to specific reasons why this particular testimony is not trustworthy, supported by expert testimony on the unreliability of IDs.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though.

ABA Tells Courts to Provide Detailed Brady Checklists

Monday, February 14th, 2011

We wrote recently on our distaste for those on the defense side who persist in playing games.  It should go without saying that it is far worse for the prosecution to play games.  And yet it happens all the time.

Ideally, when the prosecution has done its job right, it’s going to be holding all the cards.  If those cards are good, there’s little reason not to show them early and convince the defense to fold.  It saves everyone the expense and burden of litigating and trying a case that ought to just plead out.

And if those cards aren’t so good, then fairness requires that they still be shown.  Simple due process requires that a criminal defendant — someone whose life, liberty, reputation and property the government intends to destroy — be told when the government has evidence that might help him defend himself.  If such evidence is in the government’s possession, it’s not realistic to believe that the defense would ever discover that evidence.  Law enforcement is rarely willing to share information with the defense.  And even with evidence from other sources, the defense never has anywhere near the resources and ability of the government to discover that evidence.  Anyone who thinks the two sides are fairly matched in this regard either has no experience, or no active brain cells.

So that’s why we have the Brady rule.  Prosecutors are supposed to give the defense any evidence possessed by the government that might help the defense at trial or at sentencing.  It’s a great rule, but the problem is that prosecutors often have a hard time following it.  And they get away with it plenty, because it’s not like the defense was ever going to learn of the existence of that evidence.  And they have absolute immunity from civil suit for their Brady violations.

What happens often enough, unfortunately, is that prosecutors try to game the rule.  Any (more…)

More Google Mistrials

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Back in the infancy of this blog, we wrote a piece called “No More Google Mistrials: A proposal for courts to adapt to modern life.”  In it, we lamented that our jurisprudence hadn’t caught up with the realities of the internet age, and that mistrials were still being called whenever jurors got caught looking stuff up online.  We pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon — people had been Googling stuff for years — so it was high time the courts got caught up.

Amazingly, this post seems to have escaped the notice of the “they” who make up the rules of how a trial is to proceed.  Heavens forfend, but it might even be possible that a number of judges may never have even heard mention of it.  Stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any offhand.

Be that as it may, the internet is forever, and it seems to get read from time to time.  Mainly by members of the press, it appears, and usually right after yet another Google mistrial has been declared.  That’s when we seem to field calls about it, anyway.

And that’s what happened earlier this week.  We were on our way to handle a case out in the rust belt, and were driving past Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (a town near and dear to our heart ever since we landed a small plane there in a freakishly windy day back in our teens, a simple refueling that wound up involving the National Guard, a mistaken identity, extremely obliging air traffic controllers, and an absurd amount of adrenaline — though that’s a story for another time).  When we happened to get a call from a reporter right there in Wilkes-Barre, calling to discuss a Google mistrial that had just happened there.  (You can read the resulting article here.)

We basically said the same things in the interview as we’d written a couple of years ago, which is news enough right there.  Our opinions and positions do tend to evolve as we learn new facts or new ways of looking at old facts, so it was a nice surprise to read our old blog post for the first time since we’d written it and find that it’s pretty much what we’d just said.

But on second thought, we actually said some new stuff in this interview.  Some new policy considerations came to mind.  The reporter gets the credit for this, because unlike most reporters who just want a quick sound bite so they can get back to banging out their story by deadline, this reporter debated us.  She flatly challenged our position, saying that few if any would agree with us, and demanding that we defend it.  It was a pretty skillful interview.  Pity none of the good stuff made it into the article.  We blame the editors, of course.

So for the benefit of those who have bothered to read this far, here’s the good stuff:


We don’t want jurors going out and (more…)