Michigan man sues after facial recognition software leads to imprisonment

Facial recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more than white men. Yet, it remains in use in major cities.

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A man has sued Detroit police after a false facial recognition match led to him being wrongfully identified and subsequently arrested as a shoplifting suspect. 

Robert Williams, a 43-year-old father who resides in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was arrested in early January on charges that he stole watches from Shinola, a trendy accessories store in the city. Detroit Police used facial recognition software on the store’s surveillance camera footage and wrongfully identified him as the thief.

Robert Williams has sued Detroit Police after a false facial recognition match led to him being wrongfully identified and subsequently arrested as a shoplifting suspect. (ACLU)

Charges were dropped in the case less than two weeks later, citing insufficient evidence. 

In his lawsuit, Williams alleges that he was interrogated by detectives and held in police custody for 30 hours before being released. 

The 75-page suit was filed on behalf of Williams in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan.

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In a press release, the ACLU wrote, “Mr. Williams’ experience was the first case of wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology to come to light in the United States.”

Experts contend, however, that it will not be the last. 

Two bills banning the use of facial recognition in Michigan were introduced in 2019, and neither passed. Detroit Democrats and the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus separately introduced another set of bills to ban the use of the technology in the state, but it never advanced in the legislature. 

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Studies have shown that facial recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more than white men. Yet, it remains in use in major U.S. cities.

Detroiters fought aggressively against its use in the city, and Detroit police made a number of revisions to the policy, including not using it in real-time and not engaging technology from private companies. 

The lawsuit names the city of Detroit, Police Chief James Craig and Detroit police Detective Donald Bussa as defendants in the suit.

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The ACLU is seeking financial damages for Williams, who was arrested in his driveway in front of his children. It also seeks “declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent similar unconstitutional arrests in the future.”

In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post last year, Williams wrote: “I never thought I’d have to explain to my daughters why Daddy got arrested. How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?” 

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