WOODBRIDGE, NJ — An African-American man is suing the Middlesex County prosecutor, the Middlesex County Department of Corrections and the Woodbridge police department, saying he was wrongfully arrested and held in the county jail for 10 days, because his face came up as a match in facial recognition technology.
The lawsuit highlights potential problems of facial recognition technology being used to arrest someone, particularly for African-American men and people of color.
A spokesman for Woodbridge said the Township is prevented from commenting on pending litigation. Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac is also named in the suit.
The man who filed the suit is Nijer Parks, 33, who lives in Paterson, and his attorney is Jersey City-based Daniel Sexton.
The initial incident was on Jan. 26, 2019, where police were called to investigate a suspected shoplifter from the gift shop at the Woodbridge Hampton Inn. The suspect fled when police got there, and in the process tried to hit a Woodbridge police officer with the rental car he was driving.
The suspect was described as “a Black male, approximately 5″10.” The clerk at the Hampton Inn said the suspect checked in using a Tennessee driver’s license, with the name Jamal Owens.
Woodbridge police sent that driver’s license photo to New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) and the New York State Intelligence Center (NYSIC) for facial recognition, according to the lawsuit.
That photo resulted in “high profile” match to Parks, said his lawyer. Parks has been arrested multiple times before in the state of New Jersey; he has also served a prison sentence. Thus, his name and mugshot is in law enforcement’s criminal database system.
Parks said he first heard of the incident four days later, on Jan. 30, when his grandmother called him while he was at work and told him a warrant had been issued for his arrest out of Woodbridge. She said Paterson police had been to her home, trying to serve the warrant.
Parks said that upon hearing this, he called the Woodbridge municipal court clerk and inquired about the warrant. Parks said he was told that there had been a matter involving an incident in a hotel in Woodbridge and that a summons had been issued for his arrest in relation to it.
Parks said he told the municipal clerk that he had never been in Woodbridge in his entire life and, indeed, that he did not know where the town is located. At the time, Parks said he did not even have a driver’s license, and he did not get a New Jersey driver’s license until June of 2019, which he also told the clerk.
“I’ve never even been to Middlesex County besides going to a Rutgers University football game,” Parks told NJ.com in their report on his lawsuit.
Parks said he was advised to “come down and clear the matter up,” and on February 5, 2019, his cousin drove him to the Woodbridge town court to clear up what he thought was a matter of mistaken identity.
Parks said he spoke to the clerk that day, who directed him to go to the Woodbridge police station which is located in the same municipal complex.
Parks said when he went to the Woodbridge police window and told them the story, he was immediately placed in handcuffs and taken into police custody. Parks said the police employee he spoke with did not bother to listen to what he was trying to say, and did not question him.
Instead, in handcuffs, Parks said he was taken into the back offices of the Woodbridge police headquarters, where he was peppered with accusations such as, “You were the one who tried to run over a police officer at the Hampton Inn.”
“At no time did defendants seek any information from (Parks) but merely hurled accusations at him,” read his lawsuit. “As the verbal harassment got more intense and hostile, the police investigators tried to have (him) moved to a room in the back of the police offices out of range of the camera, causing plaintiff to fear that he was going to be tortured.”
Fearing he would be tortured, Parks said he feigned an asthmatic attack falling to the ground so that he could not be moved. An EMT was called in and while being examined by the EMS, Parks said he told the EMT that he feared he was going to be beaten up and asked her to take a picture of him to document his state.
After the EMT left, Parks was processed and transferred to the Middlesex County Corrections Center, where he was held for 10 days until he was released. The only evidence they had to hold him was his photo match, said his lawyer.
According to Sexton, while Parks sat in a Middlesex County jail cell, Woodbridge police and county prosecutors did not check DNA or fingerprints from the original crime scene. There were fingerprints left on the Herz rental car and rental car agreement, a partially-drunk bottle of water inside the car, a sneaker that came off when the suspect fled, eye drops, marijuana and a marijuana grinder inside the rental car, said the lawyer.
The front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn also witnessed the entire Jan. 26 incident, and he was not consulted by Woodbridge police for corroboration that Parks was the same man, said Sexton.
None of that was checked by Woodbridge police, said his lawyer. Had they, it would have shown his client, Parks, was not the Black man driving the rental car that day, he said.
“Parks is only 5’7, fingerprints and DNA were not checked, and eye witnesses were not used,” wrote his lawyer in the suit. “It shocks the conscience and indicates either intentional wrongdoing or deliberate indifference. All of the other evidence was exonerating.”
Parks was released from the county jail after 10 days.
Parks said the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office, under then-acting prosecutor Chris Kuberiet, pressured him for nearly a year after he was released, including pressuring him to plea to lesser charges. He refused, and maintained his innocence. In November 2019, all the charges against Parks were dropped, but not until nearly one year later, when Parks “insisted to the court that he was going to trial because he was innocent and because there was no evidence.”
“The facial recognition match was so flimsy, so unreliable, and was known or should have been known to the police officers to be biased against African Americans, that no reasonable police officer could think it constituted probable cause to arrest (Parks),” wrote his attorney.
In fact, just a month before Parks was arrested, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released this study that found that African Americans were up to 100 times more likely than white men to be misidentified by tested face recognition systems. The study also found that women, the elderly and children were more likely to be falsely identified. That study was considered a landmark in the criminal justice world.
In January of 2020, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a moratorium on using facial recognition technology in law enforcement investigations, until his office could come up with a policy on how to use them.
Parks is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. He was fired by his employer after his arrest and 10 days in jail and said he had to beg for his job to hire him back.
According to his lawsuit, he also wants Woodbridge Twp. police supervised and retrained in their use of facial recognition technology, should the Attorney General lift the current ban on it that’s in place. And he wants Woodbridge police officers educated that facial technology can be faulty, racially discriminatory and lead to false arrests.
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