A black mother is suing the city of Detroit and a Detroit police detective after she was falsely arrested while eight months pregnant by officers using “an unreliable facial recognition match,” a federal lawsuit filed Thursday says.
Porcha Woodruff, 32, was home around 8 a.m. on Feb. 16 helping her 6- and 12-year-olds get ready for school when six Detroit police officers came to her door with a warrant for carjacking and robbery, the complaint said.
“Are you kidding, carjacking? Can you see I’m eight months pregnant?” she asked them, says the lawsuits. Yet she was handcuffed, taken to jail and booked, it says.
Woodruff later learned she was involved in the alleged incident after facial recognition software struck and the carjacking victim allegedly identified her from a series of six photos, including her mugshot from a 2015 arrest, the complaint said. Police had access to her current 2021 driver’s license photo, but used the older photo, according to the complaint.
While criminal charges against Woodruff were dismissed less than a month later due to insufficient evidence, she is seeking a jury trial to recover punitive and other damages, the lawsuit states, which specifically points to “the troubling implications of facial recognition technology in this case.”
“Facial recognition alone cannot serve as probable grounds for arrests as computer identification is prone to errors that humans can also make,” the suit alleges. “Despite its potential, police reliance on facial recognition has led to false arrests, resulting in humiliation, embarrassment and bodily harm, as evidenced by this particular incident.”
The lawsuit is the latest to focus on facial recognition technology and its potential risks following expert warnings about AI’s tendency to error and bias, along with the dangers of inaccurate use of facial recognition.
The lawsuit further alleges that the Detroit Police Department is engaging in “a pattern of racial discrimination against (Woodruff) and other black citizens through the use of facial recognition technology practices that have been proven to misidentify black citizens more readily than others, in violation of the equal protection guaranteed by Michigan’s 1976 civil rights law.
In recent years, researchers have warned of the widespread use of technologies such as facial recognition that could lead to discrimination based on race or gender.
A 2019 U.S. government study found that many facial recognition algorithms were far more likely to misidentify racial minorities than whites. Native American, Black and Asian people were all disproportionately more likely to be affected, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology study.
Tests showed that some algorithms were up to 100 times more likely to confuse two different non-white people, the agency said at the time. In light of these concerns, several cities across the country have banned the use of facial recognition by city officials, including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Woodruff’s lawyer, Ivan Land, said on “CNN Tonight” Monday that he believes facial recognition technology could be a useful tool “if you usage It the right way” in addition to other investigative measures.
Woodruff’s lawsuit also alleges malicious prosecution by the detective who filed the warrant that led to her arrest, alleging that the “detective’s actions appeared to be motivated by malice,” it states.
The Detroit police chief called the allegations “deeply concerning.”
“We take this matter very seriously, but we are unable to comment at this time due to the need for additional investigation,” Chief James White said in a statement to CNN. “We will provide further information once additional facts are obtained and we have a better understanding of the circumstances.”
CNN has reached out to the Detroit Fraternal Order of Police, the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police and the National Fraternal Order of Police for comment, but has not heard back.
Det. LaShauntia Oliver, who is named in the lawsuit, was assigned to the carjacking case and filed the facial recognition request, according to the complaint. CNN reached out to Oliver on the phone, but received no comment before Oliver hung up.
This isn’t the only time the Detroit Police Department has been implicated in the alleged misuse of facial recognition technology: In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an administrative complaint with the department in what the nonprofit says was the first known case of wrongful arrest with facial recognition.
At the time, the department had provided video surveillance footage of a suspect to state police, who ran the footage through a facial recognition system. The system suggested a photo of a man named Robert Williams as a possible match. But after Williams was arrested and held in a detention center, officers realized he wasn’t the suspect they were looking for.
CNN has asked for comment from the Wayne County Attorney General’s Office.
“Bewildered and assuming it was a joke”
The carjacking and robbery victim contacted the Detroit Police Department on Jan. 29 to report the incident, the complaint shows. Oliver learned days later that a woman had returned the victim’s cell phone to a BP gas station, so she went there to view the video footage.
The video was submitted for a facial recognition request from the woman who returned the phone, and it identified Woodruff, the lawsuit says.
Oliver went back to the gas station to review more video footage and “detailed in her report what she observed on the video footage, and there was no mention of the female suspect being pregnant,” the indictment said.
The victim was later shown a “six-pack lineup,” including Woodruff’s eight-year-old booking photo and “allegedly identified” Woodruff as being present during the carjacking, the suit states.
When Woodruff was first confronted with the arrest warrant, she was “baffled and assumed it was a joke given her visibly pregnant condition,” the suit says. She and her fiancé “urged officers to check the warrant to confirm that the woman who committed the robbery and carjacking was pregnant, but officers refused to do so,” the indictment said.
“The officers made it clear that they meant business and arrested her,” it says.
Woodruff was held for approximately 11 hours. She said on “CNN Tonight” on Monday that she struggled to control her anxiety while being held.
“I felt helpless out there. My main concern was making sure my unborn child was safe,” she said.
Her fiancé later took her to the hospital after she suffered from “tightness and pain in her stomach, body aches, headaches and body weakness,” according to the complaint. She was diagnosed with a low heart rate due to dehydration and was told she was having stress-induced contractions, the document says.
Woodruff said she gave birth to her son in March.
Woodruff said the arrest left her children with lasting trauma.
“They are having a hard time trying to understand and cope with me being arrested in front of them,” she said. “That was an experience I cannot take back, and should have been avoided. My kids shouldn’t have gone through that for something I didn’t do.”
CNN’s Brian Fung, Jamiel Lynch and Sara Sidner contributed to this report.
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