Overview of Neil v. Biggers


Neil v. Biggers was a 1972 landmark Supreme Court decision that established the guidelines for eyewitness identifications to be allowed admissible in court. The facts of the case are that Archie Nathaniel Biggers was tried for rape and sentence to 20 years. The point of contention of the trail was the Biggers was convicted almost entirely based on the victim’s eyewitness testimony of the event. The Court was equally divided on the decision.


The reliability of an identification can be measured by five factors that were set forth in the U. S. Supreme Court case of Neil v. Biggers 1). During this case the Court decided upon a five-factor test to ensure the reliability of identifications of suspects in criminal cases. This test is used by the judicial system to ensure that identification of suspects is not suggestive or violate the defendant’s constitutional rights.

The five factors that came out of Biggers are as follows

  1. the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime;
  2. the witness’s degree of attention;
  3. the accuracy of the witness’s prior description of the criminal;
  4. the level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the confrontation;
  5. the length of time between the crime and the confrontation 2)

Implications for Law Enforcement

Law enforcement needs to be aware of the individual factors and ensure they follow the guidelines set forth to make sure that identifications of suspects are admissible in trial proceedings. With factor one, the officer needs to ensure that it is documented that the witness was able to clearly see the suspect during the crime. For instance, an identification is more reliable if the witness saw the suspect in a brightly lit store as opposed to a low light parking lot. Factor two deals with how much attention the witness paid to the suspect during the initial contact. An example of this would be if the witness brushed passed the suspect on a busy street, or did the suspect have a gun in the witness’ face and demand that they look him in the eye. Dealing with factor three, an officer should ensure that a complete description is recorded of the suspect at the time of the crime to compare with future line-up suspects. If the witness gave a detailed description at the time of the crime, it makes sense that a later identification would be reliable. Factor four deals with how confident the witness is of the suspect being the one that committed the crime. An officer should ask himself, does the witness seem one hundred percent sure, or do they hesitate and show uncertainty? The final factor to look at is the amount of time that has passed between the crime and the confrontation. Memories tend to fade and eyewitness recollections could be less reliable with the passing of time.


All these factors must be considered when evaluating the reliability of an identification. If the identification strays too far outside the parameters of the test, then it is more likely that the identification will not be allowed in as evidence in a trial. It is better to make sure the guidelines are followed that to lose credibility with prosecutors and judges.

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