Lawsuit seen as crucial test of police use of facial recognition technology

By: - February 1, 2024 6:46 am

A video monitor displays attendees as their images are captured with CyperLink’s facial recognition during CES 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 8, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in on a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit a Paterson man filed after Woodbridge police arrested him in 2019 as a shoplifting suspect solely based on a facial recognition system match.

The controversial technology is supposed to be just one of several investigatory tools police use to solve crimes, but Woodbridge officers relied on it exclusively to identify Nijeer Parks as the man who stole $39 in merchandise from a hotel, despite Parks’ insistence that he had never been to the township nor knew where it was.

Parks subsequently spent 10 days in jail and almost 10 months under prosecution before the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

“Mr. Parks’s case represents the unfortunate and increasingly common story of how the police’s uncritical reliance on results of unreliable FRT searches can deprive the innocent of their liberty and directly violate constitutional rights,” ACLU attorneys wrote in a brief filed Monday supporting Parks’ federal civil rights complaint.

The harms of such misidentification disproportionately impact people of color like Parks, the group said.

In his case, officers submitted the blurry photo from a fake driver’s license the suspected shoplifter offered before he left the hotel, and the facial recognition system returned Parks’ old arrest photo as a “possible hit.” Yet a Woodbridge sergeant, in applying for an arrest warrant for Parks, wrote: “It is the same person.” In doing so, he did not obtain the probable cause legally required to show a “reasonable ground for belief of guilt” and established the case as malicious prosecution, the ACLU wrote.

“Instead of conducting reliable confirmatory investigative steps, police merely had an officer eyeball the photo returned by the FRT search process, and then proceeded to seek authorization to arrest,” ACLU attorneys wrote.

Facial recognition systems are prone to returning false matches, leading to wrongful arrests, they added.

“Even worse, these false matches are likely to be a lookalike or ‘doppelgänger’ for the true suspect,” they wrote.

The state Attorney General’s Office expressed concerns about the technology in February 2022 and began soliciting public input to help shape statewide policy on the technology’s use in law enforcement. A spokesman didn’t respond to questions about the status of that effort.

The ACLU has called for a total ban on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology.

Parks sued Woodbridge township and police officials and the Middlesex County Prosecutor in federal court in 2021 for false arrest, false imprisonment, conspiracy, and other civil rights violations.

Attorneys for Woodbridge in December filed a motion for summary judgment, which means the judge would decide the case before trial based on the case’s discovery record. A ruling on that motion is expected soon.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.