The importance of identifying everyone in an investigation and the potential legal issues for getting it wrong

Mislabeling people in police reports is a problem. Follow these steps to prevent errors

This article is part of a series, Report Writing for a New Generation: Merging Technology with Traditional Techniques, which covers general police report writing skills along with plain English instruction, professional and technical writing best practices, and how technology is changing the way officers write.

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I think all of us have stopped a person from committing a crime, and that person ended up having a warrant. Somewhere along the way, the suspect claimed the person on the warrant was not them. But since the physical descriptors matched, we arrested them anyway. After the suspect was fingerprinted, we discovered that the person we arrested was telling the truth except that he used his brother’s information instead.

Correctly identifying people and documenting how you identified them in a police report is critical for an investigation. Many countries outside the United States require officers to identify a person using three different methods. Verbal, biometrics, government ID, fingerprints and government database are all excellent ways to identify someone. But inside the United States, we are relaxed. We should be identifying people using at least two methods, but sometimes, a single fingerprint identification is enough to prove someone’s identity.

Misidentification of a person will open the officer and their agency up for a civil lawsuit. It is never a good idea to arrest the wrong person – the more methods of identification, the less likelihood of a claim. But what happens if an officer mislabels a person in a police report? What if we list them as a suspect instead of a witness, or a victim when they are a suspect?

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