ACLU reps falsely arrested Farmington Hills man in facial recognition case

A Black man falsely arrested in January at his Farmington Hills home stands at the center of a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) use of facial recognition software.

In a video posted June 24, Robert Williams recounts the experience of being handcuffed in front of his wife, Melissa, and two small daughters. He remained in police custody for 30 hours.

Robert and Melissa Williams
Robert and Melissa Williams (ACLU video capture)

“Just a boring Thursday,” Williams said of the day when a DPD officer called to say he should turn himself in – but refused to say why. “At this point, I think it’s a prank call.”

Williams told the caller, “If you want me, come get me, I’ll be at home. Bring a warrant.” Later, a police car showed up at his home. “I was completely shocked and stunned to be arrested in broad daylight… I can’t really put it into words, it was one of the most shocking things I’ve had happen to me.”

First known case

According to the ACLU, this is the “first known case of someone being wrongfully arrested in the United States because of this technology.” Filed June 24, the complaint stems from Williams’ arrest after facial recognition software falsely identified him as the person who stole watches from a Shinola store in October 2018.

Police requested the facial recognition search in March of 2019. Four months later, officers showed “an off-site security consultant” a photo lineup that included Williams’ driver’s license photo, which had popped up in an automated search that included millions of images.

(Read more about facial recognition software concerns here: CBS News – Why face-recognition technology has a bias problem)

Williams said police showed him images taken from the store security camera. “I picked that paper up and hold it next to my face. I said, ‘This is not me. I hope you all don’t think all Black people look alike. And he said, ‘The computer says it’s you.’.”

In addition, Williams was never asked whether he had an alibi – and he did.

Case dismissed ‘without prejudice’

In a June 24 press release, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office requested a dismissal “because a supervisor reviewed the case and determined there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Williams.” The case was dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning prosecutors could re-open it. Also, Williams’ arrest record, DNA, and prints remain on file.

After her husband was released, Melissa Williams got a court order to obtain the Wayne County prosecutor’s file. When that failed, she submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the prosecutor’s office and DPD. The complaint accuses both agencies of failing to provide complete information and “stonewalling”.

In addition to an immediate response to FOIA requests, the ACLU complaint asks for the following:

  • Dismissal of the case with prejudice and a public apology
  • That Detroit Police stop using facial recognition technology as an investigatory tool, and should stop requesting that other agencies do so on its behalf.
  • Removal of any photographs of Williams from any facial recognition database
  • Expungement of the mugshot taken after Williams arrest from DPD and state records.

Worthy said the case legally cannot be dismissed with prejudice:

“A dismissal with prejudice can only occur if the statute of limitations has expired, or there is a legal bar to reauthorization, such as double jeopardy. Double jeopardy prevents the re-trying of a case when a person is acquitted… Mr. Williams is able to have his fingerprints returned and to have the case expunged from his record.”

Also in her statement, Worthy said Williams’ case “should not have been issued based on the DPD investigation, and for that, we apologize.” The dismissal, the statement concluded, “does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail.”

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