EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, November 30, 2020

Supreme Court of New Mexico Makes Important Reforms to the Admissibility of Eyewitness Identification Evidence

In federal court and most state courts, Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98 (1977), sets the standard for the admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence.

Under Manson, courts apply a two-part test to determine the admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence, addressing first whether police identification procedures were “unnecessarily suggestive” and, if so, weighing specified factors in deciding the “linchpin” issue of whether the eyewitness identification was nonetheless sufficiently reliable to satisfy federal due process requirements....Although the Manson reliability test has been widely adopted among state courts,...it has come to face ever-increasing criticism from legal scholars as a result of major advances in scientific knowledge of eyewitness memory, perception, and recall, knowledge that contradicts many of the analytical assumptions underlying the rule.

Based on these concerns, the Supreme Court of New Mexico adopted new standards for the admission of eyewitness identification evidence.

Specifically, in State v. Martinez, 2020 WL 6791529 (N.M. 2020), the Supreme Court of New Mexico held
that Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico Constitution affords broader due process protection than the United States Constitution in the context of admission of eyewitness identification evidence. In conducting eyewitness identification procedures, law enforcement agencies are required to adopt and follow scientifically supported protocols and practices to minimize mistaken identification. In addition, our holding in this case implicates three aspects of eyewitness identification law in New Mexico.
First, we adopt a new standard for determining whether eyewitness identification evidence is admissible at trial. Under the new standard, if a witness makes an identification of a defendant as a result of a police identification procedure that is unnecessarily suggestive and conducive to misidentification, the identification and any subsequent identification by the same witness must be suppressed. The question of whether the identification is “unnecessarily suggestive” focuses not only on the identification procedure itself but also on whether the police have a “good reason” to use a suggestive identification procedure in the first place.
Second, we abandon as legally and practically unsound the independent source doctrine, which has been applied in New Mexico...to permit the admission of an in-court eyewitness identification if its source is ostensibly independent of an inadmissible out-of-court identification.
Third, when a defendant files a pretrial motion to suppress eyewitness identification evidence, the initial burden is on the defendant to show some indication of suggestiveness in law enforcement's administration of the eyewitness identification procedure. Upon making this showing, the burden shifts to the state to prove by clear and convincing evidence that either (1) the procedure employed was not so suggestive as to materially taint the identification made by the eyewitness, which is to say that any departure from proper procedure could not have increased the risk of misidentification, or (2) good reason existed for the police to employ the suggestive procedure in the first instance. If the state fails to carry its responsive burden, the identification and any subsequent identification by the same witness must be suppressed.

These are terrific reforms in light of the fact that "[m]istaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 69% of the more than 375 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence." Hopefully, other states will soon follow suit in adopting more stringent standards as well.



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