Incident 288: New Jersey Police Wrongful Arrested Innocent Black Man via FRT

Description: Woodbridge Police Department falsely arrested an innocent Black man following a misidentification by their facial recognition software, who was jailed for more than a week and paid thousands of dollar for his defense.
Alleged: Unknown developed an AI system deployed by Woodbridge Police Department, which harmed Nijeer Parks.

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Lam, Khoa. (2019-01-30) Incident Number 288. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
288
Report Count
4
Incident Date
2019-01-30
Editors
Khoa Lam

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

When Nijeer Parks walked out of a New Jersey prison in 2016, he returned to his family in Paterson and told them he was done messing up his life. Twice convicted for selling drugs, Parks spent six years behind bars and said he decided after his release to earn an honest living. He found a job as a clerk at the local PriceRite, began saving money and made plans to marry his fiancé.

So when police last year filed numerous charges against Parks stemming from a shoplifting incident at a Woodbridge hotel in which the suspect hit a police car before fleeing the scene, the ex-convict who had worked eagerly to repair his life, tried just as hard to clear his name.

“I had no idea what this was about. I’d never been to Woodbridge before, didn’t even know for sure where it was,” Parks told NJ Advance Media last week.

“I’ve never even been to Middlesex County besides going to a Rutgers University football game,” Parks said.

Parks didn’t drive a car, didn’t have a license and had to ask his cousin to drive him to the Woodbridge police station, after he learned police had a warrant for his arrest.

Moments after he arrived, he said, he was in handcuffs and later confronted by detectives who told him repeatedly, “You know what you did.”

Before everything was over, Parks would spend 10 days in jail, all of his life savings, and the next year fighting to clear his name.

Parks attorney, Daniel Sexton of Jersey City, filed suit against the township, the police department and public officials, including Mayor John McCormac, alleging investigators violated his clients rights by relying on facial recognition software that has since been banned by the state.

A spokesman for the mayor said the township had not yet seen the civil complaint and could not comment.

THE CRIME

Investigators relied on facial recognition software that has since been banned in New Jersey to identify Parks as a suspect in crimes that occurred the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2019, at the Hampton Inn hotel on Route 9 North in Woodbridge.

The software, which was created by Clearview Al, was criticized for its heavy reliance on billions of social media photos to identify criminal suspects.

According to court documents obtained by NJ Advance Media, the suspect shoplifted candy and other snacks from the hotel gift shop and darted into a men’s room after a hotel staffer called police.

When two officers arrived, the man handed over a driver’s license from Tennessee identifying him as Jamal Owens.

But police ran the name through the computer in the patrol car and determined the license was not valid and possibly fraudulent, according to the report.

When the police pulled out their handcuffs to arrest the man, he fled out the back door of the hotel, losing a sneaker on the way.

Outside, the man jumped into a black Dodge Challenger as officers drew their firearms and told him to stop, but he took off, causing an officer to jump out of the way, the report states.

He crashed into the back of a patrol car and a column outside the hotel before speeding out onto Route 9, an officer wrote.

One of the officers followed the car, but lost sight of it. The vehicle was later found abandoned in a Woodbridge parking lot.

THE INVESTIGATION

The day after the hotel crimes, investigators in New York and New Jersey notified Woodbridge police they had a “high profile” match to the photo, after running it through a facial recognition system that compares the image to photos of other suspects, such as ex-convicts, whose pictures were on file in police and FBI databases.

The suspect was identified as Parks and warrants were issued in his name, charging him with numerous offenses including shoplifting, false government document and resisting arrest. He was later charged with aggravated assault with a weapon, a weapons offense and leaving the scene of an accident.

Police said they checked several addresses in Paterson in an attempt to arrest Parks, but couldn’t find him.

CLEARING HIS NAME

On Jan. 30, 2019, Parks received a troubling call from his grandmother. Police officers had been to her Paterson home and said they had a warrant for his arrest, according to his lawsuit.

A few days later, Parks asked his cousin to drive him to Woodbridge “in order to clear up what he knew to be a matter of mistaken identity,” the lawsuit says.

As his cousin waited in the car outside for four hours, Parks said he spoke with the front desk officer in an attempt to clear his name, but was soon approached by multiple officers.

“They handcuffed me, then they took me to the interrogation room. A little room,” Parks said. “They arrested me before the interview. They already had in mind they were arresting me.”

Inside, police showed him photos of the damaged Dodge Challenger and kept saying “You know what you did,” according to Parks.

He asked for a lawyer, then was taken to a hallway where he was handcuffed to a bench. About an hour later, the officers – he counted seven – told him they were going to take him to a different room for more questions.

The lawsuit states that the room where they wanted to take him for additional questioning didn’t have any cameras and that Parks grew fearful for his safety.

Parks said he feigned an asthma attack. After a brief emergency room visit, he was lodged in the Middlesex County Jail, where he said he remained for the next 10 days before posting bail.

He said after speaking with his fiancé, they decided to drain their joint savings bank account and pay an attorney $7,500 to take the case to trial.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office offered Parks a deal: In exchange for a guilty plea, he would serve six years in prison with no early release until he’d served 85 percent of his sentence. He would also be on parole for three years after his release.

If he went to trial, the prosecutor intended to seek a sentence of 20 years or more based on his previous criminal history, Parks said.

“I did have a background, but I’d been home since 2016 and I had been in no trouble,” Parks said.

“The whole thing scared the living heck out of me. I’ve been trying to do the right thing with my life,” he said.

After three or four court appearances over a year, Parks said a Superior Court judge began pressuring the prosecutor’s office to produce more evidence in the case beyond just the facial recognition software.

“She told them she didn’t want to come back to court until they had solid evidence,” Parks said. A few months after that hearing, Parks said he received a letter from the prosecutor’s office dismissing the charges.

THE LAWSUIT

Parks’ attorney argues that police and prosecutors — armed with only the facial recognition evidence from New York-based company Clearview Al — relentlessly pursued his client for nearly a year.

The software was used in the arrests of 19 men in New Jersey who police say tried to lure children for sex. Earlier this year, however, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered police and prosecutors to stop using the facial recognition technology after questions were raised about how the company receives and protects its data.

According to the attorney general’s office, in January Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a moratorium on using Clearview AI in law enforcement investigations, while the Division of Criminal Justice evaluated both Clearview AI and other facial recognition products, and developed a policy governing the use of this technology and specific products. That evaluation and review continues and the moratorium remains in place.

According to the Clearview Al, comparisons are made when the software pulls photos from the “open web” such as public social media accounts, adding millions of faces to the database every day.

The combination of people dumping personal information online and a general lack of regulation threatens people’s ability to walk outside without being watched, Helen Nissenbaum, an information sciences professor at Cornell Tech, told NJ Advance Media earlier this year.

The use of facial recognition to identify people in public is “not compatible with a free society,” she said.

Sexton said the software clearly led to his client’s false arrest.

“The mistaken identity was solely based on facial recognition software that is illegal in the state now and was always known to be faulty,” the attorney said.

“No actual evidence supported the charges against my client,” Sexton said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “No fingerprints or DNA, no blood type.” Sexton filed the complaint as a civil rights lawsuit, blaming “anti-black animus (as) a substantial motivating factor leading to the wrongful” arrest.

“Racial profiling is considered to be an equal protection claim, essentially that (Parks) was detained, arrested and charged primarily because he is or appears racially African-American,” the suit states.

The suit also claims excessive force, false imprisonment and cruel and unusual punishment, and seeks compensatory and punitive damages for physical and emotional pain and suffering.

In addition to Woodbridge police officers, Parks is suing the police director, the township’s mayor, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and the county jail.

None of those named as defendants in the lawsuit have responded to requests for comments.

He spent 10 days in jail after facial recognition software led to the arrest of the wrong man, lawsuit says

In February 2019, Nijeer Parks was accused of shoplifting candy and trying to hit a police officer with a car at a Hampton Inn in Woodbridge, N.J. The police had identified him using facial recognition software, even though he was 30 miles away at the time of the incident.

Mr. Parks spent 10 days in jail and paid around $5,000 to defend himself. In November 2019, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Mr. Parks, 33, is now suing the police, the prosecutor and the City of Woodbridge for false arrest, false imprisonment and violation of his civil rights.

He is the third person known to be falsely arrested based on a bad facial recognition match. In all three cases, the people mistakenly identified by the technology have been Black men.

Facial recognition technology is known to have flaws. In 2019, a national study of over 100 facial recognition algorithms found that they did not work as well on Black and Asian faces. Two other Black men — Robert Williams and Michael Oliver, who both live in the Detroit area — were also arrested for crimes they did not commit based on bad facial recognition matches. Like Mr. Parks, Mr. Oliver sued over the wrongful arrest.

Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who believes that the police should stop using face recognition technology, said the three cases demonstrated “how this technology disproportionately harms the Black community.”

“Multiple people have now come forward about being wrongfully arrested because of this flawed and privacy-invading surveillance technology,” Mr. Wessler said. He worries that there have been other arrests and even mistaken convictions that have not been uncovered.

Law enforcement often defends the use of facial recognition, despite its flaws, by saying it is used only as a clue in a case and will not lead directly to an arrest. But Mr. Parks’s experience is another example of an arrest based almost solely on a suggested match by the technology.

On a Saturday in January 2019, two police officers showed up at the Hampton Inn in Woodbridge after receiving a report about a man stealing snacks from the gift shop.

The alleged shoplifter — a Black man, nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a black jacket — was visiting a Hertz office in the hotel lobby, trying to get the rental agreement for a gray Dodge Challenger extended. The officers confronted him, and he apologized, according to the police report. He said he would pay for the snacks and gave the officers a Tennessee driver’s license.

The Hampton Inn in Woodbridge, N.J.Credit...Mohamed Sadek for The New York Times

When the officers checked the license, they discovered it was fraudulent. According to a police report, one of the officers spotted a “big bag of suspected marijuana” in the man’s pocket. They tried to handcuff him. That was when the man ran, losing a shoe on the way to his rental car, police said.

As he drove off, the man hit a parked police car and a column in front of the hotel, the police said. One of the officers said he had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. The rental car was later found abandoned in a parking lot a mile away.

A detective in the Woodbridge Police Department sent the photo from the fake driver’s license to state agencies that had access to face recognition technology, according to a police report.

The next day, state investigators said they had a facial recognition match: Nijeer Parks, who lived in Paterson, N.J., 30 miles away, and worked at a grocery store. The detective compared Mr. Parks’s New Jersey state ID with the fake Tennessee driver’s license and agreed it was the same person. After a Hertz employee confirmed that the license photo was of the shoplifter, the police issued a warrant for Mr. Parks’s arrest.

“I don’t think he looks like me,” Mr. Parks said. “The only thing we have in common is the beard.”

Mr. Parks’s mistaken arrest was first reported by NJ Advance Media, which said the facial recognition app Clearview AI had been used in the case, based on a claim in Mr. Parks’s lawsuit. His lawyer, Daniel Sexton, said he had inferred that Clearview AI was used, given media reports about facial recognition in New Jersey, but now believes he was mistaken.

Clearview AI is a facial recognition tool that uses billions of photos scraped from the public web, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Clearview AI’s founder, Hoan Ton-That, said officers affiliated with the state agencies where information was analyzed in the case, known as fusion centers, were not using his company’s app at that time.

According to the police report, the match in this case was to a license photo, which would reside in a government database, to which Clearview AI does not have access.

The state agencies asked to run the face recognition search — the New York State Intelligence Center, New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center — said they did not make the match. Two investigators who identified Mr. Parks with facial recognition, at the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office and Palisades Interstate Parkway Police, have not responded to requests for comment. It is unclear how the Woodbridge Police Department’s request was sent to those two investigators.

In January, after a New York Times article about Clearview AI, New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, put a moratorium on Clearview’s use by the police and announced an investigation into “this product or products like it.” A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said that New Jersey’s Division of Criminal Justice was still evaluating the use of facial recognition products in the state, and that the development of a policy governing their use was ongoing.

After his arrest, Mr. Parks was held for 10 days at the Middlesex County Corrections Center. New Jersey’s no-bail system uses an algorithm that evaluates the defendant’s risk rather than money to determine whether a defendant can be released before trial.

A decade ago, Mr. Parks was arrested twice and incarcerated for selling drugs. He was released in 2016. The public safety assessment score he received, which would have taken his past convictions into account, was high enough that he was not released after his first hearing. His mother and fiancée hired an attorney, who was able to get him out of jail and into a pretrial monitoring program.

His history with the criminal justice system is what made this incident so scary, he said, because this would have been his third felony, meaning he was at risk of a long sentence. When the prosecutor offered a plea deal, he almost took it even though he was innocent.

“I sat down with my family and discussed it,” Mr. Parks said. “I was afraid to go to trial. I knew I would get 10 years if I lost.”

Mr. Parks was able to get proof from Western Union that he had been sending money at a pharmacy in Haledon, N.J., when the incident happened. At his last court hearing, he told the judge that he was willing to go to trial to defend himself. But a few months later, his case was dismissed.

Robert Hubner, the chief of the Woodbridge Police Department, declined to comment on the case because of the pending lawsuit, but said his department had not been served the complaint. The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office also declined to comment.

Mr. Parks’s lawsuit over the wrongful arrest does not yet ask for damages.

“I was locked up for no reason,” Mr. Parks said. “I’ve seen it happen to other people. I’ve seen it on the news. I just never thought it would happen to me. It was a very scary ordeal.”

Another Arrest, and Jail Time, Due to a Bad Facial Recognition Match

A New Jersey man sued police and prosecutors, claiming he was wrongly arrested and jailed after facial recognition software mistakenly linked him to a hotel theft.

Nijeer Parks, 33, a Black man from Paterson, said his grandmother told him on Jan. 30, 2019, that an arrest warrant had been issued for him, according to the civil lawsuit filed in Passaic County.

He was accused of shoplifting from a Hampton Inn gift store in Woodbridge and then clipping a police car as he sped off. But Parks said in early 2019 that he didn't own a car and that at the time had never possessed a driver's license.

Parks said he went to Woodbridge police headquarters on Feb. 5 to clear up the mistake and was arrested.

"As he had previously told the clerk, plaintiff told the interrogators that [he] had never had a driver's license, that he had never owned a car, and that he had never even been in Woodbridge," according to the lawsuit by Parks' attorney, Daniel Sexton.

"Plaintiff also gave ... a solid alibi that proved he could not have done what he was suspected of doing," the suit says.

Parks claimed that as he sat in jail for 10 days, police and prosecutors didn't bother to check fingerprints and DNA at the scene that could have cleared him.

"Defendant police department was relying solely on the faulty and illegal [facial recognition software] or some analogous program while all evidence and forensics confirmed plaintiff had no relationship to the suspect for the crimes," according to Sexton.

Sexton said all charges were dropped.

County prosecutors and jailers, Woodbridge police and the mayor are named as respondents.

A Woodbridge spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, claiming that no one from the township had been served with the lawsuit yet. Representatives for prosecutors and jailers didn't immediately return messages seeking their response.

While use of facial recognition technology is growing, critics say algorithms struggle to distinguish faces of people with dark skin.

Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff lawyer for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said Tuesday that Parks' arrest was the result of "flawed and privacy-invading surveillance technology."

"There are likely many more wrongful interrogations, arrests, and possibly even convictions because of this technology that we still do not know about," Wessler said in a statement, adding that "this technology disproportionately harms the Black community."

CORRECTION (Dec. 29, 2020, 10:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article and an accompanying photo caption misspelled Nijeer Parks' hometown. It is Paterson, New Jersey, not Patterson.

Black man in New Jersey misidentified by facial recognition tech and falsely jailed, lawsuit claims

It has become commonplace for government agencies and law enforcement, particularly in large metropolitan areas, to use facial recognition software. These entities are a major client base of Clearview AI (“Clearview”), as we disclosed last year here on CPW. These practices, though, have garnered recent public attention and some controversy. In response to concerns raised by media coverage of Clearview’s practices, three cities last year banned their governments from using facial recognition technology, and another banned all corporate uses of facial recognition technology in public spaces. However, for the most part government utilization of facial recognition software has continued unabated.

But using such software is not without risks, as shown by a lawsuit recently filed against law enforcement officers and prosecutors. In Parks v. McCormack, et al., Case No. L-003672-20 (N.J.), the plaintiff alleges he spent ten days wrongfully imprisoned after facial recognition software used by a New Jersey police department mistakenly identified him as a suspect in a criminal investigation. This was allegedly notwithstanding that the plaintiff’s fingerprints and DNA did not match those left at the scene of the crime, and that the plaintiff provided an alibi at the time of his detention. The complaint alleges that the police department involved was relying solely on facial recognition technology in issuing the warrant for the plaintiff’s arrest. Plaintiff filed suit against the police, the prosecutor, and the municipality involved for false arrest, false imprisonment and violation of his civil rights. The lawsuit comes almost one year after New Jersey’s attorney general asked state prosecutors to stop using Clearview AI’s app and announced an ongoing investigation into it and similar facial recognition software.

The plaintiff is the third person reported to have been falsely arrested based on an incorrect facial recognition match. Notably, in all three instances the individuals mistakenly identified by the software were Black men—underscoring racial bias concerns previously raised about the adoption of facial recognition technology by government bodies. The Parks lawsuit names as defendants the officials and government entities involved in the plaintiff’s allegedly wrongful detention and imprisonment. However, due to the doctrine of governmental immunity, which shields the government from liability for the actions of state or federal employees under certain circumstances, future litigations may also seek to bring direct claims against the manufacturers of such software – and Clearview is certainly no stranger to privacy litigation. Stay tuned.

Government Users of Facial Recognition Software Sued by Plaintiff Alleging Wrongful Imprisonment Over Case of Mistaken Identity

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