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The Pinellas Sheriff's Office gets $3.5-million for a new photo-matching program.
By LISA GREENE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000
LARGO -- Pinellas County sheriff's deputies plan to start looking at your picture every time they're looking for a criminal suspect.
That's because the Sheriff's Office won a $3.5-million federal grant, signed Thursday by President Clinton, to match photos of crime suspects with databases of other photos, including Florida driver's license pictures.
Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice says the program will be a huge asset, but some criminal defense lawyers say it may infringe on citizens' privacy rights.
"Just another Big Brother situation, if you ask me," said Denis deVlaming, who thinks reviewing license photos would violate Florida's Constitution. It specifically gives Floridians a right to privacy.
Anthony Battaglia agreed.
"My picture's been up there for 10 years, and I think I have a right of privacy," Battaglia said.
Battaglia's partner, Timothy Weber, noted that drivers already licensed didn't know their pictures could be used this way.
"The question is, what was the consent you gave at the time you gave your driver's license photo?" he said.
But the sheriff doesn't see a problem.
"I don't see anything Big Brother about it," Rice said. "The innocent public out there doesn't have to worry because all it's going to do is point to a possibility or a probability."
Still, he is expecting controversy.
"I'm sure, like everything else we do in our business, it'll be subject to a court challenge, but I just don't see a violation here at all," Rice said.
Rice compared the program, called face recognition technology, to DNA evidence and automated fingerprint matching.
"It's just amazing how this will boost our investigative capabilities," Rice said.
The computer software would use a picture of a suspect, such as one taken by a surveillance camera at a bank or convenience store, or a police composite drawing. It would measure the suspect's face: the distance between the person's pupils, from eye to nose, and other features. Then it would review those measurements against photos in databases.
In effect, the program could run every licensed Florida driver through a photo lineup.
Pinellas would be the first police agency in Florida to use the technology, but it's already being used in a few other states, most often to prevent fraud rather than to catch criminals.
According to news reports, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department caught a mugger three years ago by comparing a composite sketch to mug shots in its database. But most of its mug shots aren't digitized so they can be read by a computer.
In Illinois and West Virginia, computers check driver's license applicants with existing license photos to make sure they don't have another identity. In Boston, welfare officials do the same thing to prevent double-dippers. But in Michigan, state officials decided not to use the technology because of privacy concerns.
DeVlaming compared the plan to the controversy generated several years ago, when Florida sold the state's database of driver's license photos to a private company that planned to use them to help retail stores fight credit card fraud. The sale generated so much protest that Gov. Jeb Bush canceled the contract in early 1999.
But Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said this program would be different because it would be used only by law enforcement agencies.
Rice said he hopes to have the system working sometime next year, "but that may be a little optimistic."
The Sheriff's Office has few details about how the technology will operate. It is working with a computer company, Viisage Technology, and a consulting firm, the Lafayette Group. But officials still don't know what new computers or other equipment they will need.
"There's still a lot of work to do, but it's a very exciting prospect," said office spokeswoman Marianne Pasha. "It's going to be custom-designed for our use."
The department plans to phase in the technology, Pasha said, first using a database of county jail booking photos, and then moving on to Florida driver's license records and other photo databases. Those could include other local jails' booking photos and federal arrest photos.
Records on the grant, which was included in legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also say the Florida Highway Patrol will participate in the plan.
Sanchez said late Thursday that the patrol met last week to discuss the program, but that officials there haven't yet decided whether the program is feasible. Young and Pasha said the patrol already agreed to participate.
In the past, Rice said, investigators have been frustrated by surveillance photos. Without other information, they have no way to compare them to the records they have unless they look at thousands of pictures.
"This is right up there with DNA and automated fingerprints," Rice said. "It makes our job a lot more effective."
That's what scares deVlaming. He envisions innocent people being summoned to police lineups, where a witness could choose the wrong person.
"You may resemble the individual who committed a crime," he said. "You get put in a six-picture lineup, and you have a one in six chance of being identified."
Weber questioned what would happen if the initial photo is blurry.
"If it's sketchy, or fuzzy, or they got a bad angle, I would think the courts would be very, very skeptical of letting somebody be convicted solely on a comparison of two bad pictures," he said.
Young said the technology will make false accusations less likely. He said the computer's measurement of suspects' features will be a more exact tool than relying on the fuzzy memories of a witness.
"This will actually protect the innocent, by more thoroughly identifying the culprit," he said. "This is the initial stages on a new technology to help law enforcement in their fight against crime."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
Viisage Technology website
How facial recognition works
For your own sake, draw the line with the Social Security number (August 27, 2000)
The erosion of privacy (July 6, 1999)