DETROIT – A Michigan man is suing the Detroit Police Department in federal court after he was wrongfully arrested and jailed for shoplifting.
Robert Williams, a Black man, was arrested at his home in a Detroit suburb in front of his wife and two young daughters after a police officer called him at work and told him to turn himself in, but didn’t say what for, according to a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union. Williams thought the call was a prank. He was arrested later that day.
Williams’ experience was the first case of wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology to come to light in the United States, according to reports.
“I came home from work and was arrested in my driveway in front of my wife and daughters, who watched in tears, because a computer made an error,” Williams said in a statement. “This never should have happened, and I want to make sure that this painful experience never happens to anyone else.”
The lawsuit states that Williams’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated and his wrongful arrest is in violation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. It seeks damages and policy changes to stop the use of facial recognition technology by the DPD. Williams is represented by the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan.
“We’ve repeatedly urged the Detroit Police Department to abandon its use of this dangerous technology, but it insists on using it anyhow,” said Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “Justice requires that DPD and its officers be held accountable.”
Williams was arrested in January 2020 for a 2018 theft of five watches, worth $3,800, from a Shinola store in Detroit, according to an article from The New York Times that broke the story in June.
DPD officers tried to identify the shoplifter by feeding a blurry image from the store’s surveillance video through facial recognition technology, which matched the image with Williams and led to his arrest, the release said.
Williams was held for 30 hours in the Detroit Detention Center where he was forced to sleep on a cement floor due to overcrowding, according to the release.
The lawsuit cites studies that show facial recognition technology is faulty when it comes to identifying Black people especially in cases, like this one, when the photo is grainy, the lighting is poor and the suspect is not looking at the camera, the release said.
“The technology is racially biased, flawed and easily leads to false arrests of innocent people, just like our client,” said Jeremy Shur, a student attorney with CRLI.
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