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

David K. Li

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.