The past five years have been a series of expensive attempts by the state of Florida to fix their fundamentally flawed fingerprint system. Commissioned in 2007, the state agreed to pay Motorola more than $7 million for a new automatic fingerprint identification system (abbreviated AFIS). Yet, since it’s completion in the summer of 2009, the new AFIS system has cost more to repair, update and maintain then it did to design and build.
However, even with a staggering additional $11.3 million being spent to correct the constant problems, officials have finally thrown in the towel. They recently requested funds to build an entirely new system, scrapping the old one which has cost taxpayers more than $18 million overall. That’s an expensive price tag for a system that has functioned for only five years, and is now being relegated to the trash bin.
Yet, wasted money was not the only issue with this AFIS system, as it has had trouble with both speed and accuracy. The potential for missed matches and false positive identifications is especially troubling, as it could open up a host of legal questions. In fact, Florida’s state attorney is currently trying to get a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former employee of Motorola dismissed. Experts speculate that the reason for this move is to prevent any convictions which were obtained under the current AFIS system from being called into question.
After all, defense attorneys could argue that their clients were improperly identified, due to a potentially faulty AFIS system. Reports from a Fort Lauderdale criminal attorney confirms that he has seen this type of argument in his practice. These sorts of allegations may not be unfounded, as the system failed to meet the accuracy goals specified in Motorola’s contract. In fact, it had the potential to overlook up to 10 fingerprint identifications for every 1,000 prints run. This is a significant number, and the ramifications could be meaningful. How so?
Missed identifications could mean some criminal suspects were not apprehended, or that background checks failed to flag people with a criminal past. Also, during the testing phase before Motorola delivered the final product, they noted one instance of a false positive identification. While the chances are extremely slim that such a scenario could occur again, if it were to transpire an innocent person could be wrongfully convicted on the strength of incorrect fingerprint identification.
The current lawsuit by former Motorola employee Zoltan Barati accuses the company of withholding internal documentation, which detailed that these problems existed. The outcome of the case is still in question, with the state attorney’s motion to have the case dismissed with prejudice is still pending.
This kind of malfunctioning equipment that is so key to the identification of suspects can open up the police departments to civil lawsuits for damages. In states where there isn’t a provision for compensation for the wrongly accused can sue the State for compensatory damages from being incarcerated or accused. In Florida the wrong man was arrested for a rape he didn’t commit, he is seeking compensation for the damage to his reputation and loss of freedom during the mix up. In talking with a South Florida personal injury attorney, we learned that the state could be held liable for the cost of the defense to prove the wrongly accused person’s innocence, damages from lost wages and punitive damages. These aren’t even included in the $18 million that went down the drain for the system, the costs will continue to rise as these cases stack up.