Facial Recognition: False Arrest Fight in California Faces Reckoning

In summary

Three men falsely arrested using facial recognition technology have joined the fight against a California bill that aims to introduce barriers to police use of this technology. They say it will continue to allow abuses and unjustified arrests.

In 2019 and 2020, three Black men were charged with crimes they did not commit and jailed for crimes they did not commit after police used facial recognition to falsely identify them. Their wrongful arrest lawsuits are still pending, but their cases reveal how artificial intelligence tools can lead to civil rights violations and lasting consequences for the defendants’ families.

Now all three men are speaking out against pending California legislation that would prohibit police from using facial recognition technology as the sole reason for a search or arrest. Instead, it would require confirmatory indicators. Critics say the problem is that a possible facial recognition “match” does not constitute evidence and could lead the investigation astray even if police look for corroborating evidence.

Last month, the state Assembly passed Assembly Bill 1814 by a 70-0 majority. The bill is expected to go before the Senate Public Safety Committee today as the opposition mobilizes.

Such a bill “would not have stopped police from falsely arresting me in front of my wife and daughters,” Robert Williams said in a statement to CalMatters. In 2020, Detroit police charged Williams with stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of watches – the first known case of a false arrest using facial recognition in the United States – after facial recognition matched surveillance video to Williams’ photo in a state database. Investigators placed his photo in a “six-pack” along with five others, from which he was selected by a security guard who saw the surveillance image and not the theft itself.

“In my case, as in others, the police did exactly what AB 1814 required them to do, but it didn’t help,” said Williams, who is black. “When the facial recognition software told them I was a suspect, it poisoned the investigation. This technology is racially biased and unreliable and should be banned.

“I am begging California legislators not to settle for half-measures that do not actually protect people like me.”

The first facial recognition-based searches in the United States took place over two decades ago. The process begins with a photo of the suspect, usually captured on security camera footage. iPhone’s facial recognition is trained to match your photo, but the methods law enforcement uses to search databases of mugshots or driver’s license photos can contain millions of photos and can fail for a number of reasons. Researchers’ tests have shown that the technology is less accurate when trying to identify dark-skinned people, Asians, Native Americans, people who identify as transgender, if the sample image of the suspect is of low quality or if the image in the database is out of date.

After the computer creates a list of possible matches from an image database, police select a suspect from a range of candidates and then show the photo to an eyewitness. Even though people think they are good at it, eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States.

Because prosecutors use facial recognition to identify potential suspects but ultimately rely on eyewitness testimony, the technology can play a role in a criminal investigation but remains hidden from defendants and defense attorneys.

Guidelines not to treat a possible facial recognition match as the sole basis for an arrest sometimes make no difference — they failed, for example, in the case of Alonzo Sawyer, a man falsely arrested near Baltimore and spent nine days in jail.

Njeer Parks, who spent nearly a year fighting allegations that he stole items from a New Jersey hotel gift shop and then nearly hit a police officer with a stolen vehicle, opposed the California bill in a video posted to Instagram last week. The police “can’t do their job if the AI ​​already says, ‘It’s him.’ This is what happened to me.”

“I was lucky,” he told CalMatters in a telephone interview about the receipt that exonerated him and kept him out of jail. “I don’t want anyone to be in jail for something they didn’t do.”

The attorney for Michael Oliver, the third Black man wrongly accused of assaulting a Detroit high school teacher in 2020, is scheduled to testify at a legislative hearing today in Sacramento, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

“When the facial recognition software told them I was a suspect, it poisoned the investigation.”

Robert Williams, ???

Supporters of the bill include the California Departments Association and the League of California Cities. The California Association of Chiefs of Police argues that facial recognition can reduce criminal activity and provide police with actionable leads, and that such technology will be important as California looks to host international events such as the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Angeles.

“Across the country, real-world examples of law enforcement using (facial recognition technology) to solve serious crimes demonstrate how important this new technology can be to protecting our communities,” argues the California Association of Chiefs of Police. She cited cases in which she said facial recognition played a role in identifying those responsible, including a shooting at a newspaper headquarters in Maryland and a rape in New York.

Facial recognition alone should never lead to false arrests, Jake Parker of the Security Industry Association told members of the California Assembly a few weeks ago. That’s why AB 1814 is designed to corroborate an investigative lead with evidence, not just a possible facial match.

“There is a clear need to increase public confidence that this technology is being used correctly, lawfully and effectively, in a limited and non-discriminatory manner, for the benefit of our communities,” he said. “We therefore believe that AB 1814 will help strengthen that trust, and that is why we urge you to support this bill in its current form.”

“I believe that taking a precautionary step can help protect people’s privacy and due process rights, while allowing local governments to go further and enforce their own facial recognition bans.”

Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco

However, last week, more than 50 supporter organizations signed a letter opposing the bill, including the ACLU, Access Reproductive Justice and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They called facial recognition unreliable, a proven threat to Black men and a potential threat to protesters, abortion seekers and the immigrant and LGBTQ communities.

“By allowing police to unrestrictedly scan and identify individuals, AB 1814 will also increase unnecessary police interactions that can too often escalate into deadly encounters. This will remain true no matter how accurate facial recognition technology becomes,” the organizations said in the letter. “People have no way of knowing whether facial recognition has been used on them, nor is there a mechanism to ensure police are following the law.”

The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, also authored the 2019 bill that initially imposed a permanent ban on police use of body camera footage with facial recognition. This was changed to a temporary ban which expired in January 2023.

Ting told CalMatters that he is uncomfortable with the fact that California currently has no restrictions on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition.

In a statement, he said his bill “simply requires officers to have additional evidence before they can conduct a search, arrest or file an affidavit to obtain a warrant. I believe that taking a precautionary step can help protect people’s privacy and due process rights, while allowing local governments to go further and enforce their own facial recognition bans.”

Ting’s city of San Francisco became the first major city in the country to ban facial recognition in 2019, but an analysis by City Attorney David Chiu found that the city’s adoption of Proposition E in March allows police to conduct searches based on o facial recognition in photos recorded by cameras and drones. Last month, the Washington Post reported that San Francisco police were circumventing the restrictions by asking law enforcement agencies in neighboring cities to search for them.

Said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin says facial recognition-related false arrests almost certainly occurred in California, but would remain unknown to the public unless prosecutors bring charges and the defendant later goes to trial in a civil court to obtain compensation. Often such cases were settled out of court.

“We absolutely need a legislative and regulatory framework for these technologies, but I don’t think AB 1814 is adequate in protecting civil liberties or providing meaningful guardrails or safeguards on the use of these new and powerful technologies,” said Boudin, who now directs the Center for Criminal Law and Justice at the University of California, Berkeley.

Staff members of the Senate Public Safety Committee suggested amending the bill to say that judges should not issue warrant requests from law enforcement agencies based solely on a possible match through facial recognition technology.

Lawmakers have until the end of the August legislative session to decide whether to adopt AB 1814.