Stovall v. Denno

388 U.S. 293 (1967); 87 S. Ct. 1967; 18 L. Ed. 2d 1199

One-Sentence Takeaway

To determine whether a violation of due process of law took place in the conduct of a witness identification depends on the totality of the surrounding circumstances.


Defendant was arrested for murder and taken to hospital for identification by the victim’s wife who also was seriously wounded in the incident and was in critical condition.  The wife identified Defendant as the assailant.  The identification occurred before Defendant was given the time to retain an attorney.

On appeal, Defendant claimed a violation of his right to due process.

The United States Supreme Court rejected Defendant’s claims.  It ruled that the identification at the hospital was suggestive.  However, the possible unfairness of the identification was justified by the urgent need to confront the suspect because the only living eyewitness (the wife), who was hospitalized, was in danger of dying:

Here was the only person in the world who could possibly exonerate [Defendant].  Her words, and only her words, “he is not the man,” could have resulted in freedom for [Defendant].  The hospital was not far distant from the courthouse and jail.  No one knew how long [the wife] might live.  Faced with the responsibility of identifying the attacker, with the need for immediate action and with the knowledge that [the wife] could not visit the jail, the police followed the only feasible procedure and took [Defendant] to the hospital room.  Under these circumstances, the usual police station line-up, which [Defendant] now argues he should have had, was out of the question.

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