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Law School Case Brief

Foster v. California - 394 U.S. 440, 89 S. Ct. 1127 (1969)


Judged by the "totality of the circumstances," the conduct of identification procedures may be so unnecessarily suggestive and conducive to irreparable mistaken identification as to be a denial of due process of law.


After defendant Foster was arrested for armed robbery of a Western Union office, two lineups were held. In the first lineup, defendant, who was close to 6 feet tall, stood out from the other two men who were relatively shorter, and by the fact that he was wearing a leather jacket similar to that worn by the robber. The only witness to the robbery, the night manager of the Western Union office, could not positively identify Foster as one of the robbers, although he “thought” that defendant was one. The witness then asked for and was given a chance to speak to defendant. Defendant was brought into an office alone and seated across from the witness at a table. Even after the one-on-one confrontation, the witness was still uncertain whether defendant was the robber. About a week later, the witness viewed another lineup, of defendant and four different men – this time, the witness was “convinced” defendant was the robber; however, this definitive identification occurred only after the second lineup in which Foster was the only person who had also appeared in the first lineup. The trial resulted in the conviction of Foster, although a second defendant was acquitted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction and the California Supreme Court denyed review. The United States Supreme Court granted Foster's petition for certiorari review in which Foster alleged that the lineups violated his constitutional rights.


Was the police lineup so overly suggestive as to violate defendant’s constitutional rights?




The United States Supreme Court held that the lineup had to be judged by the totality of the circumstances. The Court found that defendant's lineup presented a compelling example of unfair lineup procedures because the suggestive elements in the identification procedure made it all but inevitable that the witness would identify defendant whether or not he was, in fact, the robber. In reversing defendant's conviction and remanding the case, the Court concluded that the procedure so undermined the reliability of the eyewitness identification that it violated defendant's right to due process.

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