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NACDL Wins Appeal for Eyewitness Identification Data

In 2006, when Illinois officials released results from a study comparing the effectiveness of traditional eyewitness identification with other methods, the results created an uproar.
The study, commissioned by the Illinois General Assembly, found the "traditional" line-up method of identification more reliable than sequential identification. With sequential identification, witnesses are shown individuals one-by-one, and must indicate whether the person shown is the suspect before being shown the next person. The police officer running a sequential lineup, unlike a "traditional" line-up, does not know who the suspect is, either.

The study's results created such uproar because other research had consistently shown that the sequential, double-blind method of identification, resulted in substantially fewer false identifications.

Shortly after the study's release, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the data underlying the study's results to the three study participants: the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the Joliet Police Department (JPD), and the Evanston Police Department (EPD). NACDL wanted to see how the study reached its conclusion that "traditional" line-up identification was more reliable than sequential identification.

The EPD eventually complied with NACDL's request for the data, but CPD and
JPD did not. CPD and JPD claimed that the requested data could not be released because doing so would interfere with ongoing investigations, invade personal privacy of individuals, and be unduly burdensome.

NACDL sued, but two circuit courts denied relief. NACDL appealed, and the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth Division, reversed on February 25, 2010.

While CPD and JPD had claimed the requested records were exempt from disclosure, the appeals court held that CPD and JPD had failed to carry its burden with respect to the asserted exemptions under FOIA. The appeals court also rejected CPD and JPD's categorical claims of undue burden.

There is a "vital public interest in the disclosure" of the records sought by NACDL, the court wrote.

The appellate court, accordingly, remanded the matter with instructions for CPD and JPD to demonstrate, on a document-by-document basis, why production would be burdensome, interfere with law enforcement proceedings, or compromise the privacy of study participants.
Further, the appeals court directed the lower courts to review, in camera, any documents CPD or JPD claimed could not be produced.

Finally, the appeals court rejected privacy exemptions CPD and JPD had asserted with respect to the disclosure of actual photo lineups and photo array photos, ordering that these records be produced on remand.

The "appellate decision directing disclosure to NACDL of this data is a tremendous victory for fairness and justice," said Locke Bowman, legal director of MacArthur Justice Center and counsel for NACDL.

Eyewitness identifications are one of the most unreliable forms of evidence used in criminal prosecutions. See: NACDL v. Chicago Police Department, 399 Ill.App.3d 1, 924 N.E.2d 564 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. 2010).

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Related legal case

NACDL v. Chicago Police Department