Field Identifications

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Field identifications, also known as “show-ups,” are unique procedures that happen close to the scene of a crime. They occur when police officers present a single suspect to a witness shortly after a crime takes place. The purpose? To see if the witness can identify the suspect as the perpetrator. This on-the-spot, quick method can help law enforcement apprehend the criminal swiftly.

Pros and Cons of Field Identifications

While beneficial due to its speed and convenience, field identifications also carry inherent risks. The setting itself can influence the witness – the immediate aftermath of a crime, the tense environment, and the trauma experienced by the witness. All these factors might impair their ability to identify the suspect correctly.

Moreover, the suggestive nature of field identification, where only one person is presented as the potential perpetrator, can contribute to mistaken identifications. These false identifications can have serious consequences, leading to wrongful convictions.

Landmark Case: Stovall v. Denno

In the landmark Supreme Court case, Stovall v. Denno (1967), a significant discussion around field identification procedures was sparked, bringing this important aspect of criminal justice into focus. The case, steeped in the context of complex legal, ethical, and practical considerations, played a significant role in defining the contours of field identification practices.

The case involved a brutal attack on a couple. Stovall, the suspect, was apprehended near the scene and immediately brought to the hospital for identification by the gravely injured wife. Despite the extremely suggestive nature of the procedure, with Stovall being the only black man in a group of white policemen, the court upheld the admissibility of this identification evidence, finding that immediate identification was necessary given the circumstances.

However, the court also recognized the potential for suggestiveness and error in such situations. They acknowledged the risk of misidentification, especially when a single suspect is presented to a witness for identification, as it was in the case of Stovall.

In light of these concerns, the Supreme Court articulated a novel constitutional rule. It held that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which guarantees every person the right to a fair legal process, requires the exclusion of identification evidence if the identification procedure is unnecessarily suggestive and substantially likely to lead to a misidentification.

The Stovall v. Denno decision is critical because it acknowledges the tension between the need for prompt law enforcement action and the requirement of fairness to the accused. The ruling not only demonstrated an awareness of the risks involved in field identification procedures but also created a measure of protection for the defendant. It marked an important step toward balancing the scales of justice by imposing a constitutional check on the way identification evidence is collected, ensuring that the rights of the accused are not disregarded in the pursuit of justice.

Precautions and Responsibilities

Given these risks, law enforcement must take precautions when conducting field identifications. For example, in some areas, police officers are not allowed to handcuff suspects during a show-up, nor can they suggest that the presented person is the perpetrator.

On the legal side, defense attorneys have a crucial role. They can challenge the admissibility of a field identification if it seems to have been conducted in a suggestive or unfair manner. If successful, this challenge can lead to the exclusion of this evidence from the trial, ensuring fair treatment for the defendant.


Field identifications, despite their potential pitfalls, remain an effective tool in the hands of law enforcement. However, they must be conducted with care to protect the rights of suspects and uphold the integrity of the criminal justice process.



Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/24/2023

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