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Detroit woman sues city after being falsely arrested while pregnant due to facial recognition technology

Porcha Woodruff was getting her two children ready for school when police officers presented her with an arrest warrant alleging robbery and carjacking, court documents show.
Porcha Woodruff, 32, the first woman known to be wrongfully accused as a result of facial recognition technology, in Oak Park, Mich., Aug. 5, 2023.
Porcha Woodruff, 32, was wrongfully accused as a result of facial recognition technology.Nic Antaya / The New York Times / Redux Pictures

A Detroit woman is suing the city and a police detective after she was falsely arrested because of facial recognition technology while she was eight months pregnant, according to court documents.

Porcha Woodruff, 32, was getting her two children ready for school on the morning of Feb. 16 when six police officers showed up at her doorstep and presented her with an arrest warrant alleging robbery and carjacking.

Woodruff initially believed the officers were joking given her visibly pregnant state. She was arrested.

"Ms. Woodruff later discovered that she was implicated as a suspect through a photo lineup shown to the victim of the robbery and carjacking, following an unreliable facial recognition match," court documents say.

The robbery victim told police that on Jan. 29 he met a woman whom he had sexual intercourse with. At some point in the day, they went to a BP gas station, where the woman "interacted with several individuals," according to the lawsuit.

They then left for another location, where the victim was robbed and carjacked at gunpoint by a man whom the woman had interacted with earlier at the BP gas station. The victim told police his phone was returned to the gas station two days later.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, names Detective LaShauntia Oliver, who was assigned to the case, as a defendant.

When Oliver learned that a woman had returned the victim's phone to the gas station, she ran facial technology on the video, which identified her as Woodruff, the lawsuit alleges.

"Detective Oliver 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 lawsuit says.

When a man was arrested driving the victim's car on Feb. 2, Oliver failed to show him a picture of Woodruff, according to court documents.

The victim was also shown a lineup of potential suspects and identified Woodruff as the woman he was with when he was robbed. Oliver used an eight-year-old picture of Woodruff in the lineup from an arrest in 2015, despite having access to her current driver's license, according to the lawsuit.

On the day Woodruff was arrested, she and her fiancé urged officers to check the warrant to confirm whether the woman who committed the crime was pregnant, which they refused to do, the lawsuit alleges.

Woodruff was charged with robbery and carjacking and released from the Detroit Detention Center at around 7 p.m. on $100,000 personal bond.

Her fiancé took her to a medical center, where she was diagnosed with a low heart rate due to dehydration and was told she was having contractions from stress related to the incident.

On March 6, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office dropped the case for "insufficient evidence," according to the lawsuit.

In a statement Sunday, the prosecutor's office said the case was dismissed, which emphasizes that a judge made the final decision, not prosecutors.

The prosecutor’s office said the warrant that led to Woodruff’s arrest was on solid ground. “The warrant was appropriate based upon the facts,” it said.

The office said it was dismissed because the victim failed to appear during a preliminary hearing, which was intended to ensure there's sufficient evidence to prosecute. A victim's unwillingness to appear or testify, however, is not an automatic trigger for dismissal. Evidence can often still carry a case. And it's not clear if prosecutors in this case requested dismissal.

The office confirmed that facial recognition prompted police to include the plaintiff's photo in a six-pack, or array of images of potential suspects in the warrant package.

Detroit Police Chief James E. White said he reviewed the allegations in the lawsuit, which he said are "very concerning."

"We are taking this matter very seriously, but we cannot comment further at this time due to the need for additional investigation," he said in a statement. "We will provide further information once additional facts are obtained and we have a better understanding of the circumstances."

Oliver did not respond to requests for comment.