Robert Williams

Williams v. City of Detroit

Location: Michigan
Status: Closed (Settled)
Last Update: January 29, 2024

What's at Stake

This case seeks to hold Detroit police accountable for the wrongful arrest of our client due to officers’ reliance on a false match from face recognition technology.

In January 2020, Detroit police wrongfully arrested our client Robert Williams outside his home, in front of his two young daughters and wife and in plain view of his neighbors, and subjected him to thirty hours of detention in an overcrowded, dirty cell. Mr. Williams’ was the first publicly reported instance of a false face-recognition “match” leading to a person’s wrongful arrest.

After a shoplifter allegedly stole several watches at a Shinola store in Detroit in 2018, officers with the Detroit Police Department tried to identify the thief by capturing a blurry, low-quality still image from the store’s surveillance video and sending it to the Michigan State Police to run a face recognition technology search. The face recognition search returned a a possible match to an expired driver’s license photo of Mr. Williams. But the match was dead wrong: Mr. Williams was plainly not the man in the security footage and was nowhere near the store at the time of the alleged theft. Nevertheless, police used Mr. Williams’ photo to construct a photo lineup array, which they presented to an off-site Shinola loss-prevention contractor­—someone who was not there on the day of the theft and whose only knowledge of the incident stemmed from watching the same poor-quality surveillance footage that was used to generate the incorrect face recognition result.

A detective with the Detroit Police Department then applied for an arrest warrant, but omitted significant information from the warrant application that would have put the magistrate on notice that neither the face recognition technology result nor the subsequent photo lineup procedure were reliable.

In April 2021, the ACLU, ACLU of Michigan, and University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative filed a civil-rights lawsuit on Mr. Williams’ behalf against the individual detective responsible for his arrest, the City of Detroit, and Detroit’s Chief of Police. The lawsuit alleged that the detective, through his omissions in the warrant application, misled the magistrate judge, resulting in issuance of an arrest warrant without the required probable cause. It also alleged what discovery in Mr. Williams’ case and several more recent facial-recognition false arrests in Detroit have since made obvious: That the city lacked any policy for law enforcement use of face recognition technology at the time the technology was used in this case, and that Detroit failed to train its police officers on the dangers of misusing face recognition technology in their investigations.

On June 28, 2024, the parties in this case formalized a groundbreaking settlement agreement, concluding the lawsuit and achieving the nation’s strongest police department policies constraining law enforcement’s use of face recognition technology. Under the agreement, police will be required to back up face recognition results with independent and reliable evidence linking a suspect to a crime before making any arrest. They also be trained on face recognition technology and its dangers, especially for people of color, whom these tools are known to misidentify at higher rates. And an audit will be conducted of all cases since 2017 in which the Detroit Police Department used face recognition technology to obtain an arrest warrant.

A copy of the settlement agreement, along with selected pleadings and discovery documents from the case, are below.

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