Michigan Law’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Michigan announced today a settlement in the lawsuit brought on behalf of Robert Williams, who was wrongfully arrested by the Detroit Police Department in 2020 after the department relied on incorrect results from facial recognition technology. 

The settlement agreement achieves the nation’s strongest police department policies and practices constraining law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology. The agreement also will lower the likelihood of wrongful arrests, especially for people of color and women, who are substantially more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition technology.

Williams was wrongfully arrested at his Farmington Hills, Michigan, home in front of his wife and two children for allegedly stealing watches from a Detroit store. His case is one of three known wrongful arrests where Detroit police relied on facial recognition technology. All three who were wrongfully arrested were Black. 

Key components of the settlement include the following: 

  • Police will be prohibited from arresting people based solely on facial recognition results or on the results of photo lineups directly following a facial recognition search.
  • Police will be prohibited from conducting a lineup based solely on a facial recognition investigative lead without independent and reliable evidence linking a suspect to a crime. 
  • Police will be trained on facial recognition technology, including its risks and dangers and that it misidentifies people of color at higher rates.
  • An audit will be conducted of all cases since 2017 in which facial recognition technology was used to obtain an arrest warrant. 

The court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement for four years. Under the terms of the settlement, Detroit will also pay monetary damages to Williams and attorneys’ fees.

“The Detroit Police Department’s abuses of facial recognition technology completely upended my life,” said Williams. “My wife and young daughters had to watch helplessly as I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit, and by the time I got home from jail, I had already missed my youngest losing her first tooth and my eldest couldn’t even bear to look at my picture. Even now, years later, it still brings them to tears when they think about it. 

“The scariest part is that what happened to me could have happened to anyone,” continued Williams. “But, at least with this settlement, it will be far less likely to happen again to another person in Detroit. With this painful chapter of our lives closing, my wife and I will continue raising awareness about the dangers of this technology.”

Michael Steinberg, a professor from practice at Michigan Law and the director of the school’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, represented Williams along with student-attorneys Julia Kahn, Collin Christner, Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, and Nethra Raman, all 2024 graduates. Also representing Williams were Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, and Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

“We hope this groundbreaking settlement will not only prevent future wrongful arrests of Black people in Detroit, but that it will serve as a model for other police departments that insist on using facial recognition technology,” said Steinberg. “We are also thrilled that Mr. Williams, who has become a face of the movement to stop the misuse of facial recognition, will receive some measure of relief.” 

Banner Caption: Student-attorneys from Michigan Law’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative met with Robert Williams (center) following his settlement with the Detroit Police Department.