Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Scan precedents? Developing

You're strolling along Ybor City, and a police officer stops you. Cameras mounted along the street have scanned your face and matched it with the image of a wanted criminal. The officer demands to see some identification. What do you do?

If you're Rick Escobar, a Tampa criminal defense attorney, you peacefully decline.

"I'd say "no,' " Escobar said. "The officer is going to have to make a determination at that time to say whether you are under arrest or not. A citizen can refuse to provide evidence to law enforcement as long as a lack of cooperation is peaceful. The officer is going to have to make the hard choice."

Escobar is among the critics of this face-scanning technology, called FaceIt, being used by Tampa police in Ybor City. While some members of the public like the idea _ they think it will make their city a safer place _ protesters have criticized the scanning of faces from video cameras mounted along the historic district as an invasion of privacy. Escobar questions its reliability.

Is a face-scanning match probable cause to stop someone for identification?

It's a case of technology moving faster than the justice system. Because Tampa is the first city in the nation to use the face-recognition software for public scanning, its dynamics have not been tested in the courts.

"I think we're in unchartered territory," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. "(It's use) is premature."

But police officials are confident they are well within their rights.

"We're definitely not just going out there and throwing caution to the wind," said police Maj. Rick Duran.

The city attorney's office has researched the issue twice and found similar cases where police officers are legally allowed to request identification from the public, Duran said.

"It wouldn't be any different from any time an officer sees someone similar to someone else" and asks for identification, he said.

But there is a difference, some say. While the courts have ruled that officers have probable cause to stop someone based on their own observations, courts have not yet been challenged to rule whether face-scanning computers give officers that same right.

"That's the big problem," said Kevin H. Watson, spokesman for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a national coalition of law enforcement, victims and citizens now speaking out against FaceIt. "You have technology that is so new, it's gone beyond what is court precedent and legal standards."

Escobar said if he were asked to challenge an arrest in court, he would "absolutely" take the case.

"Number one, we've got to make sure this is accurate technology," he said. "I'd be thrilled to test the reliability of that process."

Escobar said that unless a person has an arrest warrant, innocent people nabbed in a case of mistaken identity should try to overcome the fear of being questioned by authorities and just say no.

"It's an interesting issue," he said. "The politicians are really going to have their hands full. Law-abiding people are not going to be too pleased with them because (the citizens are) being stopped while walking peacefully on the streets of Ybor City."

Critics of the system who call themselves the Ybor Coalition plan to go before the City Council on Thursday to request that the agreement between the city and the company that created the software be revoked.

In May, some members of the City Council voted to make Tampa the test market without realizing it.

So far, two months into a one-year trial period, Tampa police have not stopped anyone in the streets, Duran said.

He said that when faced with people who refuse to show their IDs, police officers will evaluate all of their options.

"Our job is not easy," he said.