New Jersey Supreme Court remands case for new hearing on eyewitness identifications

After a landmark decision in 2011 regarding eyewitness identification procedures, the New Jersey Supreme Court revisited the topic in a case decided this summer. State v. Micelli (Aug. 19, 2013). The court used this opportunity to discuss judicial procedures and ultimately held that the appellate court overstepped its authority to evaluate eyewitness evidence. As a result, the court reversed the defendant’s eluding conviction and remanded the case back to the trial level for further deliberations.

The defendant in Micelli was charged with eluding a law enforcement officer after allegedly driving through a DWI checkpoint without stopping. He was identified as a suspect shortly after the incident when police found an abandoned car near the checkpoint that belonged to his mother. A lieutenant then showed a picture of the defendant to the officers who were manning the checkpoint and told them that “this is the guy.” Both officers agreed and made positive eyewitness identifications.

The defendant challenged the admissibility of the identifications, claiming that they were tainted by the single-photo lineup and the lieutenant’s suggestive remarks. The trial judge determined that the evidence were admissible, however, based on the police officers’ advanced training. The appellate division reversed this finding on appeal, agreeing with the defendant that the identification procedures were impermissibly suggestive. The court still affirmed the defendant’s conviction, however, because it determined that, despite their suggestiveness, the eyewitness identifications were nevertheless reliable.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed again and held that the appellate court overstepped its authority by ruling on the reliability of the eyewitness evidence. As the court explained, the process for determining whether an out-of-court identification is admissible consists of two steps. First, the judge must determine whether or not the identification procedures were impermissibly suggestive, and if the judge finds that they were not, then the evidence may be used at trial. If the judge determines that the procedures were impermissibly suggestive, on the other hand, the evidence is deemed inadmissible unless the judge finds that the identifications were nevertheless reliable. In this case, the trial judge found that the identifications were not suggestive and thus he did not evaluate the second prong of the test. The appellate division, as a result, should have remanded the case back to the trial judge to make factual findings and weigh the evidence of reliability, instead of conducting this analysis itself.

For more information about eyewitness identification procedures in New Jersey or to discuss other legal matters, call me, Anthony N. Palumbo, New Jersey criminal defense lawyer, at 908-337-7353.

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