Under former police commissioner Andy Tsang, the Hong Kong police force was wracked by scandals.
The latest came after media reports that three assault suspects and fillers in a police lineup were allowed to wear face masks and shower caps, making it impossible for their victims to make a positive identification.
The three are accused of assaulting television journalists during last year’s democracy protests.
Police officials later announced they had decided not to press charges due to lack of evidence, prompting the justice department to clarify that what they meant was they needed to investigate further.
By law, a crime suspect can ask to be allowed to hide any distinguishing facial feature during the identification procedure.
For instance, if there are some distinctive marks on the suspect’s head or face which make him or her stand out — and which might lead to a misidentification — the request should be granted.
However, the police must take into account whether the outcome might obstruct a fair trial.
In a recent robbery case, the suspect had dyed blonde hair. The police arranged for all fillers to have their hair similarly dyed so the suspect didn’t stand out.
The defense lawyer argued in court that such arrangement was unnecessary because the suspect was wearing a baseball cap when the alleged crime was committed, so the victim would not have noticed his blonde hair.
Instead, the proper way would have been to have the suspect and the fillers wear shower caps.
The purpose of such arrangement is to protect the suspect’s rights and to avoid wrongful conviction, but it has caused a great deal of controversy.
A recent case of document fraud is an apt example.
The witness failed to identify the suspect during the identification parade because the entire lineup wore a shower cap.
The judge gave the victim special permission to identify the suspect before the court, a very rare instance given the basic principle of presumption of innocence.
These examples show that there is a basic procedure to follow when identifying suspects in a police lineup — the police must re-enact as accurately as possible how the suspect looked at the time the crime was committed.
Having said that, I see no reason why the police allowed the suspects in the assault case to wear shower caps and surgical masks during the identification parade as none of the suspects had any distinctive features on their heads or faces in the first place.
This gives the impression that the police were trying to help the suspects get away with their crime.
This is definitely not standard procedure, let alone a professional way to handle a criminal case.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 12
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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