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Sheriff who used “pre-crime” algorithm to target “would-be” criminals will face trial

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A federal judge refused to dismiss a case against a sheriff in Florida over a “Minority Report-style” computer program that predicts criminals. The sheriff’s office is accused of then proceeding to harass the “future criminals” identified by the program.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco sought to dismiss the case. According to the Institute for Justice(IJ), the organization representing the plaintiffs in the case, Judge Steven Merryday’s ruling to dismiss the motion to dismiss is a victory.

We obtained a copy of the order for you here.

“Today’s decision is an important step toward the ultimate dismantling of the program,” explained Ari Bargil, an attorney at the Institute for Justice.

The lawsuit cites a “dystopian ‘predictive policing’ program used in the county, and enforced by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). According to the IJ, for the past decade, the PCSO has used a “crude computer algorithm to identify and target supposed ‘future criminals.’”

The Tampa Bay Times conducted an investigation that found out that the sheriff’s deputies show up at the homes of the identified “potential criminals” unannounced and demand to enter. If there was no cooperation, the deputies would write tickets for petty offenses such as having tall grass or missing house numbers.

A former deputy told the paper that they were ordered to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

“By rejecting the PCSO’s attempt to have the case thrown out, the judge signaled that the plaintiffs’ claims are meritorious and that a full inquiry into the constitutional legitimacy of the program is necessary. We look forward to proving up our claims in the weeks and months to come.”

The lawsuit, filed at the US District Court in Tampa, argues that the program and the sheriff’s office violate the Fourteenth, Fourth, and First Amendments. The case was filed by IJ on behalf of Robert Jones, Darlene Deegan, Dalanea Taylor, and Tammy Heilman, all who were “relentlessly surveilled and harassed.”

According to IJ, Jones received the worst treatment, which started in 2015 after his son was involved in an incident where police also became involved. After that, the “deputies started to conduct ‘prolific offender checks.’ These warrantless ‘checks’ involved repeated, unannounced visits to Robert’s home at all hours of the day. Robert grew tired of the harassment and stopped cooperating with police. That only made matters worse.”

He was then given a citation after the deputies measured the length of his grass and said it was too tall. He was later arrested for failing to appear in court for the citation, which “he was never told was happening.” He was arrested four more times after that.

“I lived through a living hell because a computer program said my family didn’t belong in Pasco,” said Robert Jones. “I only thought this kind of thing happened in movies, not in America. We’ve got rights. And I’m going to stand up for them and shut this program down.”

“The Pasco Sheriff’s Office has appointed itself judge, jury, and executioner in the lives of its residents, punishing alleged future criminals for hypothetical crimes that have not been committed,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “Today’s decision means the sheriff is going to have to justify that behavior before a real judge.”

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