By Jennifer Henderson, CNN
(CNN) — A Black mother is suing the city of Detroit and a Detroit Police Department 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 February 16, helping her 6- and 12-year-olds get ready for school when six Detroit police officers arrived at her door with an arrest warrant for carjacking and robbery, the complaint states.
“Are you kidding, carjacking? Do you see that I am eight months pregnant?” she asked them, the lawsuits says. Still, she was handcuffed, taken to jail and booked, it states.
Woodruff later learned she was implicated in the alleged incident after the facial recognition software hit as well as the carjacking victim allegedly identified her in a lineup of six photos that included her mugshot from a 2015 arrest, the complaint states. Police had access to her current driver’s license photo issued in 2021, but used the older photo, according to the complaint.
While the criminal charges against Woodruff were dismissed less than a month later for insufficient evidence, she is seeking a jury trial to recover punitive and other damages, states the suit, which specifically notes “the troubling implications of facial recognition technology in this case.”
“Facial recognition alone cannot serve as probable cause for arrests, as a computer’s identification is prone to errors that humans might also make,” the complaint claims. “Despite its potential, law enforcement’s reliance on facial recognition has led to wrongful arrests, causing humiliation, embarrassment, and physical injury, as evident in this particular incident.”
The lawsuit is the latest to zero in on facial recognition technology and its potential risks following warnings by experts about AI’s tendency toward errors and bias, along with the dangers of inaccurate facial recognition usage.
The suit further alleges Detroit police engaged “in a pattern of racial discrimination of (Woodruff) and other Black citizens by using facial recognition technology practices proven to misidentify Black citizens at a higher rate than others in violation of the equal protection guaranteed by” Michigan’s 1976 civil rights act.
In recent years, researchers have cautioned against the widespread use of technologies like facial recognition that may lead to race or gender discrimination.
A 2019 US government study found many facial recognition algorithms were far more likely to misidentify racial minorities than White people. Native American, Black and Asian people were all disproportionately more likely to be affected, according to the study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Testing found that some algorithms were up to 100 times more likely to confuse two different non-White people, the agency said at the time. In the face of those concerns, several cities nationwide have banned the use of facial recognition by city officials, including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Woodruff’s attorney, Ivan Land, said on “CNN Tonight” Monday that he believes facial recognition technology can be a helpful tool “if you use it the right way” alongside other investigative measures.
Woodruff’s suit also alleges malicious prosecution by the detective who submitted the warrant that led to her arrest, claiming the detective’s “actions appeared to be driven by malice,” it states.
Detroit’s police chief called the allegations “very concerning.”
“We are taking this matter very seriously, but we cannot comment further at this time due to the need for additional investigation,” Chief James White told CNN in a statement. “We will provide further information once additional facts are obtained and we have a better understanding of the circumstances.”
CNN has reached 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 suit, was assigned to the carjacking case and submitted the facial recognition request, according to the complaint. CNN reached Oliver via phone but was not able to get a comment before Oliver disconnected the call.
This is not the only time the Detroit police department has been involved 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 said was the first known case of wrongful arrest involving 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 potential match. But after Williams was arrested and held in a detention center, officers realized he was not the suspect they sought.
CNN has requested comment from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
‘Baffled and assuming it was a joke’
The carjacking and robbery victim contacted Detroit Police on January 29 to report the incident, the complaint shows. Oliver days later learned a woman returned the victim’s cell phone to a BP gas station, so she went to there to review the video footage.
The video was submitted for a facial recognition request on the woman who returned the phone, and it identified Woodruff, the suit states.
Oliver went back to the gas station to see more video footage and “stated in detail in her report what she observed in the video footage, and there was no mention of the female suspect being pregnant,” the complaint states.
The victim was later shown a “six-pack lineup” including the eight-year-old booking photo of Woodruff and “allegedly identified” Woodruff as being present during the carjacking, the suit states.
When first confronted with the arrest warrant, Woodruff was “baffled and assuming it was a joke, given her visibly pregnant state,” the suit says. She and her fiancé “urged the officers to check the warrant to confirm the female who committed the robbery and carjacking was pregnant, but the officers refused to do so,” the complaint says.
“The officers made it clear they were serious and proceeded to arrest her,” it states.
Woodruff was held for approximately 11 hours. She said on “CNN Tonight” Monday that she struggled to control her anxiety while she was detained.
“I felt helpless in there. My main concern was making sure that my unborn child was safe,” she said.
Her fiancé later took her to the hospital after she suffered from “stomach tightness and pain, whole body pains, headaches, and body weakness,” the complaint states. She was diagnosed with 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 that the arrest has caused lasting trauma for her children.
“They’re having issues with trying to understand and cope with the fact that I was arrested in front of them,” she said. “That was an experience that I can’t take back, and it should have been avoided. My children shouldn’t have had to experience that for something I didn’t do.”
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