The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 8-1 [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Perry v. New Hampshire [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the Due Process Clause does not require a preliminary judicial inquiry into the reliability of an eyewitness identification when the identification was not procured under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances arranged by law enforcement. The petitioner was convicted based in part on an eyewitness identification made while he was in handcuffs, albeit not orchestrated by the police. The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and the Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Given the safeguards generally applicable in criminal trials, protections availed of by the defense in Perry's case, we hold that the introduction of Blandon's eyewitness testimony, without a preliminary judicial assessment of its reliability, did not render Perry’s trial fundamentally unfair.Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented:
Our cases thus establish a clear rule: The admission at trial of out-of-court eyewitness identifications derived from impermissibly suggestive circumstances that pose a very substantial likelihood of misidentification violates due process. The Court today announces that that rule does not even "com[e] into play" unless the suggestive circumstances are improperly "police-arranged."Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion.
The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in November. The petitioner argued that it was fundamentally unfair to allow potentially erroneous eyewitness identifications into the trial simply because they were not orchestrated by police. New Hampshire, supported by the US Solicitor General as amicus curiae, argued that the rules of evidence provided sufficient safeguards and that cases where the erroneous identifications were disallowed were aimed at deterring police misconduct, which no one has alleged in the case at hand. In addition, the government urged it is the primary role of the jury to assess the reliability of evidence and handing that determination to the judge would be a fundamental shift in our trial practice. The court questioned whether the role of these due process protections was strictly deterrence or whether it also included prevention of injustice, as urged by petitioner.