Photographic Arrays

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

A photographic array, commonly referred to as a photo lineup, is an instrumental tool within the justice system that serves as a crucial step in criminal investigations. The process involves the presentation of a selection of photographs to a witness or victim following a crime. This collection of photos typically includes one or more images of the individual suspected of the crime, along with several “fillers” or images of individuals not suspected. The goal is to determine if the witness or victim can identify the suspect from among the array of photos presented.

The primary utility of this tool lies in its effectiveness in confirming or denying the involvement of a suspect in the crime in question. Law enforcement agencies across the globe widely use the photographic array for its advantages, such as convenience, efficiency, and the ability to prevent potential face-to-face confrontations between victims and alleged perpetrators early in an investigation. However, the process must be conducted with fairness and precision to ensure reliable identification and respect for the rights of suspects.

Constitutional Considerations in Photographic Arrays

The utilization of photographic arrays involves various constitutional considerations. This relates specifically to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law. We’ll explore three key Supreme Court cases to understand these concerns better.

Stovall v. Denno (1967)

In Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293 (1967), the Supreme Court had to consider whether a one-person show-up identification process violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The Facts: The victim was shown a suspect while in the hospital shortly after the crime was committed.

Legal Issue: The Court had to determine whether this procedure was unnecessarily suggestive and likely to lead to misidentification.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court ruled that the procedure was necessary in this case.

Rationale: The Court decided that the victim was in a critical state and could have died, thus making an immediate identification essential (Stovall v. Denno, 1967).

Manson v. Brathwaite (1977)

In Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98 (1977), the Court further explored the standards for identification procedures.

The Facts: A police officer identified a suspect from a single photograph.

Legal Issue: The question was whether this procedure was unduly suggestive and violated the suspect’s rights under the 14th Amendment.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court held that the identification was acceptable.

Rationale: The Court stated that even if the identification procedure was suggestive, the identification could still be admitted if it was reliable, considering the totality of the circumstances (Manson v. Brathwaite, 1977).

Simmons v. United States (1968)

Finally, in Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968), the Supreme Court tackled the issue of photographic arrays directly.

The Facts: Witnesses were shown photos of the suspects before the lineup.

Legal Issue: The question was whether the process was unnecessarily suggestive and violated the suspect’s rights under the 14th Amendment.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court ruled that the process was not unconstitutional.

Rationale: The Court balanced the police’s efficient investigation methods against the potential for misidentification. They concluded that pre-lineup photo viewing was not unconstitutional unless it was unnecessarily suggestive (Simmons v. United States, 1968).


The photographic array is a widely-used tool in criminal investigations. However, the way it is utilized must respect the principles of due process, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the photographic array’s constitutionality, provided it is not conducted in a manner that is unnecessarily suggestive and likely to lead to a misidentification of the suspect.



Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/24/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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