A suspected bank robber is calling for his case to be thrown out after police admitted to photoshopping his tattoos from his mugshots in a bid for witnesses to identify him.
Tyrone Lamont Allen’s face is covered in tattoos that would be virtually impossible to miss, yet when police in Portland suspected he could be behind a string of bank and credit union robberies, they decided to edit them out before showing his picture to witnesses.
None of the tellers working at the time of the robberies reported noticing any tattoos on the robber’s face, and surveillance footage also showed a man with no visible tattoos. However, when witnesses were shown a line-up of five similar looking, two of the tellers identified Allen’s tattoo-free mugshot as the robber.
Police decided they would arrest Tyrone Allen for a series of bank robberies. Problem – he didn’t fit the suspect’s description. He has prominent facial tattoos. The suspect had none. Solution – the police digitally erased his tattoos from his mugshot. https://t.co/ogoeZRQEjr
— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@DrRJKavanagh) August 17, 2019
Allen faces three counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery, all dating back to holdups that took place in the north-east of Portland in April 2017. The culprit was given the nickname the ‘Foul Mouth Bandit’ because of excessive use of profanities. Allen allegedly visited four banks and credit unions over four days, where he demanded cash while claiming he had a gun. Three-out-of-four of the tellers complied, and he walked off with more than $14,000, according to The Washington Post.
Later that month, Allen was arrested for driving a car with no license plates, headlights or taillights. Police then received a call from a tipster who knew Allen through a mutual friend, who said they’d seen Allen’s mugshot, as well as surveillance footage of the bank robber. The tipster said their head ‘immediately started spinning’ when they noticed the robber looked just like Allen, but without the tattoos.
One of the tellers involved in the robberies cited seeing fated tattoos on the robber’s neck, while another mentioned tattoos on his hand, yet none of them described any on his face.
— KGW News (@KGWNews) May 20, 2017
So, instead of coming to the conclusion that Allen couldn’t possibly be guilty of the crimes, investigators decided to hide his facial tattoos from his mugshot before showing them to witnesses in a double-blind line-up, court records show.
The criminal complaint says two of the four tellers identified Allen, while one of them picked another man and the fourth was unable to decide.
Now, Allen’s attorney Mark Ahlemeyer has filed a motion to have the evidence thrown out of court. Meanwhile, the prosecution argued the robber’s ‘immutable facial features’ looked enough like Allen to justify adding him to the photo line-up, noting he could’ve applied makeup before the robberies.
According to assistant US attorney Paul T. Maloney, Allen ‘should not reap a windfall because the investigators were able to take steps to counteract his efforts to disguise his identity.’ He argued photoshopping the tattoos simply ‘applied the digital equivalent of makeup.’
Police justified editing the photo by saying they didn’t want the tattoos to draw too much attention to Allen or distract witnesses.
As per the The Guardian, lead investigator detective Brett Hawkinson, part of the FBI’s taskforce on bank robberies, said:
There are times it has been appropriate to make those small subtle changes. The main purpose is not to make the suspect stand out.
Ahlemeyer and other legal experts says that digital erasure could contribute to unreliable witness testimony.
As per The Washington Post, he argued:
If a witness reports that a perpetrator did not have any front teeth, can the government simply black out a suspect’s teeth on the theory that it could be done with cosmetics?
Or if a suspect’s skin color is too dark or too light as compared to objective video evidence, can the government simply press a few strokes on a computer keyboard and adjust the color to match that objective evidence?
Matt do Santos of the ACLU added it was troubling law enforcement didn’t document any changes to the photo and argued Portland police should proactively disclose similar cases.
If you can’t do a good photo lineup, the answer isn’t to change the photo, the answer is that a photo lineup just can’t be done.
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Emma Rosemurgey is an NCTJ trained Journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and started her career in regional newspapers before joining the LADbible Group team in 2017.