Many years ago I was walking down the street when several patrol cars quickly pulled up, police jumped out and sternly stated, "Stop. Can I see some ID?" (with hands on guns/tasers ready for a chase).

Naturally I stopped and showed ID. No problem.

Once the officers saw I was cooperative and not trying to be difficult, they lowered their defenses and became much more cordial.

I learned that I "matched the description" of someone who apparently had just moments before committed an armed robbery a few blocks away. Okay, so I get why I was stopped. Again, no problem. They took my information and let me go on my way.

A few days later, two officers knocked on my door and asked if I would "come down to the station to be part of a photo line-up." Note that I have no criminal record and there is most likely nothing "on file" that would have been sufficient for the police to use.

Due to my circumstances - just got off work, had a job that left me smelling of gas, tar, and asphalt and very, very greasy and grimy and I hadn't had a chance to clean up yet - I politely turned down their request. This wasn't a problem. The officers went on their way.

Much later I read somewhere that one should never pose for a photo line up because if the "witness" makes a mistake you could be in a whole lot of trouble quickly with little or no cause for it.

Is it ever a good idea to pose for a photo line up if you haven't been charged with anything?

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    There must either be some grant of immunity, or else participants in line-ups aren't volunteers (i.e., everyone is there because there is "probable cause" to compel them to be). I'd love to know which is the case.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 22:49
  • @feetwet but I wonder is simply "matching a description" actually probable cause??? Given any description, surely there are hundred or thousands of individuals in any city/town that roughly match it. I mean I get there's a reason for the request. But as an innocent citizen, I wonder why anyone would actually volunteer in the first place. I'd imagine immunity is not something which would be ever discussed on the off chance you are guilty of the crime.
    – Scott
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:42
  • Also.. I'm aware that the police knocking on my door may have simply been due diligence to ensure I provided the proper information and they weren't really seeking my help in a photo line up.
    – Scott
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:44
  • To clarify: were you asked to be one of the "fillers" to viewed by a witness along with the real suspect, or would you have been the "real" suspect? I'm not aware of the police using a line-up to select the best fit from a pool of suspects
    – DJohnM
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 23:09
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3 Answers 3


In this instance, the police were almost certainly trying to get you to volunteer to be in a line-up with the victim of the crime picking out potential suspects (of which you were absolutely one, and probably remain so).

Assuming the chap or chappete who got mugged, who basically only saw the barrel of the gun, picked you out of the lineup at random, you could have expected to be carted off to a holding cell pending an interview, followed by arrest and very likely conviction for armed robbery.

You were wise to refuse. You should never cooperate with the police even if you think have an amazing alibi that means that you couldn't have committed the crime.


  • "The police are here and they want to talk to me. What should I do?" - The appropriate lawyer answer is "shut your fool mouth" (AKA "Any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect, in no uncertain terms, to make no statement to the police, under any circumstances" - Justice Robert Jackson - 1949
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 23:56
  • It doesn't take away from the ultimate validity of the advice, but it seems exaggerated to say that merely being picked from the lineup would lead to "very likely conviction for armed robbery". Considering that (if OP is innocent) there may be little or no other corroborating evidence, and there may be exculpatory evidence, the a priori chance of conviction (or even proceeding to trial) is not high in absolute terms -- though even a small chance is of course still a serious concern given the consequences. I just think it detracts from the answer to overstate things.
    – nanoman
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 8:14
  • Plus, an obvious retort is that if you can confidently argue that the victim's perception/memory of the event is so hazy (due to the stress of being robbed at gunpoint) as to make their identification essentially random and meaningless, then the defense should be able to get highly credentialed expert witnesses to testify to exactly that. Again, not to say it makes it wise for OP to take that risk -- but you breezily assert that the victim "basically only saw the barrel of the gun" without addressing how this fact, if true, can and will be used in court to challenge an identification.
    – nanoman
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 8:22
  • @nanoman - I've used a little hyperbole, sure, but I think the main point stands. If they're asking him about it, he's obviously a suspect. By answering their questions he risks making himself a bigger suspect. If it goes to court, his conversation with them (and identification in a line-up, no matter how erroneous) could result in his wrongful conviction. He was right to refuse and should continue to do so in future. No good comes of talking to the police unless you're the victim of a crime.
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 8:26

In theory, if the police have one suspect and pick up five more random strangers for a lineup, then it is not impossible that the suspect is totally innocent and one of the five random strangers is in fact the perpetrator. And that random stranger might be identified which eventually would lead to a conviction.

And again in theory, if the police have one suspect and pick up five more random strangers for a lineup, then it is not impossible that the suspect is totally innocent and one of the five random strangers looks by coincidence very much like the perpetrator. And that random stranger might be identified which eventually would lead to a conviction of an innocent person. And that person might be you.

I would probably not volunteer at all, and definitely not volunteer unless I had a cast iron alibi.

  • 4
    I disagree. Your "cast iron alibi" is only as good as the people providing it. If your friend says the wrong day or the CCTV has a duff timestamp, you might well find that your alibi is worthless, or worse, actually implicates you in the crime.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 23:52

Whether to cooperate with the police is a mater of judgement, not of law. The police cannot compel a person to participate in a line up unless they arrest that person. If they can get a photo of the person, they can stage a photo line up without anyone's consent.

Most lineups have only a single suspected person present.

Many years ago, I did A summer internship with Dr. Robert Buckhout. (See also his Scientific American article on Eyewitness Testimony) I learned from him that the rate of error in eyewitness identification was much higher than many people, including lawyers and Judges, often believe, and that relying on the identification of a stranger seen briefly during a brief stressful encounter such as an armed robbery is quite risky.

In addition, he told me of many cases he had been involved with where the police had attempted to subvert the process. It was not uncommon, he said, for police who asked a person to "come down" for a line up or a photo to arrange that the suspect be seen by the victim or witness outside of and before the lineup, before the supposed lineup. His research demonstrated that such a practice drastically affected the results of the lineup, even when the "suspect" had never before been seen by the witness.

Whether, in view of such possibilities, it is wise to agree to a lineup or photo, is a matter of judgement. Perhaps if a person had been addressing the town council, recorded on local TV at the time of the alleged crime, it could do no harm.

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    This assumes that the victim doesn't change their story.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 9:16

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