A resident of Farmington Hills, Michigan filed a federal lawsuit after he was arrested based on facial recognition technology. Attorneys representing Robert Williams filed the suit on April 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The 75-page lawsuit seeks an undisclosed amount in damages for “the grave harm caused by the misuse of – and reliance upon – facial recognition technology.”
The lawsuit says Williams’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. In addition, it said his arrest in January 2020 violated the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. Aside from the city of Detroit, Police Chief James Craig and detective Donald Bussa – both from the Detroit Police Department – were named as defendants.
Williams’s 2020 arrest stemmed from an October 2018 theft at a Shinola store, where five watches worth about $4,000 were stolen. The theft was captured on video, and a loss prevention officer reviewed footage from the store. The videos were later sent to law enforcement, who then ran the footage through facial recognition software. The software then returned a hit for the Farmington Hills resident.
According to the lawsuit, Williams was arrested “without explanation on his front lawn in plain daylight in front of his wife and children, humiliated, and jailed in a dirty, overcrowded cell for approximately 30 hours where he had to sleep on bare concrete.” It added that he endured the ordeal “all for no reason other than being someone a computer thought looked like a shoplifter.”
Williams himself seconded the harrowing experience he went through. “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,” he said. The wrongfully arrested man continued: “This never should have happened, and I want to make sure that this painful experience never happens to anyone else.”
An April 13 press release by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that Williams’s arrest was the first case of wrongful arrest because of facial recognition technology. Back in June 2020, the civil rights nonprofit wrote a letter of complaint to Detroit law enforcement regarding Williams’s arrest. The letter penned by ACLU of Michigan Senior Staff Attorney Phil Mayor demanded that the police department make a public apology for the arrest, Williams’s police and state records be expunged and that the department immediately cease the use of facial recognition technology.
Critics slam facial recognition technology, warns of its dangers
Williams’s case attracted national attention when it became publicized in 2020. It also vindicated critics of the technology, who earlier cited studies that said it returns an inordinate number of false hits against Blacks. In the ACLU’s April 13 statement, Mayor said: “We know that facial recognition technology threatens everyone’s privacy by turning everybody into a suspect.” (Related: Half of America already in law enforcement’s facial recognition network.)
The ACLU senior staff attorney continued: “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 [the department] and its officers be held accountable.”
Student attorney Jeremy Shur seconded Mayor’s remarks. “Cities across the country have banned police from using facial recognition technology for a reason. The technology is racially biased, flawed and easily leads to false arrests of innocent people, just like our client,” he said. The student attorney who represents Williams is part of the University of Michigan Law School‘s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative.
Meanwhile, Detroit law enforcement took to the defense after Williams’s lawsuit. According to Craig, the investigation on the 2018 theft commenced while the department still used the technology. The city used the same facial recognition system as the Michigan State Police that time. “If this case had happened now, facial recognition use wouldn’t have even been authorized,” he said.
The Detroit police chief also noted that the investigation kicked off before a more stringent policy limiting the use of facial recognition was put in place. The policy’s stipulations included bans for seeking warrants on the basis of a facial recognition hit. Craig remarked that the “rigorous” rules help address the impact of the system falsely flagging African-Americans.
Detroit’s Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia acknowledged in an April 13 statement that the arrest took place before the COVID-19 pandemic happened. “In that time since, the [police department] has conducted an internal investigation and has sustained misconduct charges relative to several members of the department,” he said.
The head of the city’s law department said they “will seek to achieve resolution of Williams’s claims on terms that are fair to him and the city.” Garcia continued that new protocols have been implemented to prevent similar events from occurring.