DETROIT — The University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Farmington Hills, Michigan resident Robert Williams, who is suing the Detroit Police Department for wrongfully arresting and jailing him based on faulty facial recognition technology. Mr. Williams’ experience was the first case of wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology to come to light in the United States, according to the lawsuit.
“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,” said Mr. Williams. “This never should have happened, and I want to make sure that this painful experience never happens to anyone else.”
After a shoplifter allegedly stole several watches at a Shinola store in Detroit in 2018, Detroit police officers tried to identify the thief by using a blurry image from the store’s surveillance camera video and feeding it through facial recognition technology. The lawsuit cites studies that show that facial recognition technology is poor at accurately 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. Mr. Williams is Black.
“Cities across the country have banned police from using facial recognition technology for a reason,” said Jeremy Shur, a student attorney with CRLI, which is representing Mr. Williams. “The technology is racially biased, flawed, and easily leads to false arrests of innocent people, just like our client.”
Mr. Williams was held 30 hours in a filthy Detroit detention center where he was forced to sleep on a raised cement slab due to overcrowding.
“We know that facial recognition technology threatens everyone’s privacy by turning everybody into a suspect,” said Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney for 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. Justice requires that DPD and its officers be held accountable.”
Today’s lawsuit states that Mr. Williams’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated and his wrongful arrest is in violation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit seeks damages and policy changes to stop the abuse of facial recognition technology.
In addition to Shur and Mayor, Mr. Williams is represented by professor and attorney Michael J. Steinberg, director of Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School (CRLI), CRLI student attorney Deborah Won, and ACLU attorneys Dan Korobkin and Nathan Freed Wessler.
For background information on Mr. Williams’ wrongful arrest see:
- ACLU video, Wrongfully Arrested Because of Flawed Face Recognition Technology (June 24, 2020): https://youtu.be/Tfgi9A9PfLU
- New York Times article that broke Mr. Williams’ incident, Wrongfully Accused By an Algorithm (June 24, 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/technology/facial-recognition-arrest.html
- Washington Post op-ed, I was wrongfully arrested because of facial recognition. Why are police allowed to use it? (June 24, 2020): https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/24/i-was-wrongfully-arrested-because-facial-recognition-why-are-police-allowed-use-this-technology/
- Detroit Free Press article, Detroit says 'shoddy' work led to wrongful arrest tied to facial recognition technology (June 26, 2020): https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2020/06/26/facial-recognition-wrongful-arrest-detroit-police/3265943001/