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Florida’s ‘Minority Report’: a ‘sheriff’ pursues crimes not yet committed

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Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco uses a computer algorithm that compiles data from people with criminal records to predict whether they will commit crimes again.

The Pasco (Florida) sheriff’s office punishes people for crimes they have not yet committed and may never commit. It is not a phrase from the dystopian movie ‘Minority Report’, but the beginning of the lawsuit against the chief of the police of this county for the use of technologies that violate constitutional rights. Like the PreCrime security force from Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movie, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco uses sophisticated software with a computer algorithm designed to compile data from people with criminal records of a certain profile and arrest them before they can repeat offenders.

The lawsuit was filed last week and in it, the plaintiffs accuse the sheriff of “predicting that certain people may commit crimes in the future and then harassing their family and friends with incessant visits to their homes, detentions, subpoenas and unwarranted seizures.” The 55-page complaint, filed by four residents of the county, accuses police of having “adopted an official policy of harassing individuals and their families because they believe they are likely to commit future unspecified crimes.”

They state that this “widespread habit of harassment” is carried out through the use of an intelligence and surveillance system, a software called by the plaintiffs as “The Program”, which compiles the list of suspects. Civil rights defenders have also charged against the use of the ‘sheriff’ of this artificial intelligence system that violates people’s constitutional rights.

Thus, the Institute for Justice (IJ) maintains that this technology of “predictive police surveillance” ends up being a tool of “constant harassment of people in their own homes”, a kind of “dystopian nightmare” for residents of Pasco County on Florida’s west coast. They also call the police allegation that it is “intelligence-based surveillance” a euphemism, since, according to the IJ, “there is nothing fair or intelligent” about it.

The controversy created by this machine that predicts future crimes has also jumped into the realm of politics, where Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has asked the governor of the state, Ron Desantis, the removal of Nocco. “It’s horrible to harass citizens because you think they may commit crimes in the hope of ‘making their lives miserable,’” Republican Gaetz wrote on social media. He and other voices argue that the program crosses the boundaries of law enforcement and the technology used by the ‘sheriff’ to predict which residents are most likely to commit crimes in the future overthrows constitutional rights and the First and Fourth Amendments.

They go after the children and arrest their parents

An investigation of the case published by The Tampa Bay Times reveals that the four plaintiffs were directly affected or their parents who were targeted by the algorithm. The newspaper quotes Robert A. Jones, III, whose teenage son was targeted by the software and who described how, after refusing to comply with the constant demands of agents to search his home, he was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and child neglect. Both charges were later dropped.

This modus operandi was used repeatedly: once a suspect was identified through the intelligence program, agents began to visit the homes of those people again and again, even when there was no court order or any evidence of a crime. Another case of Tammy Heilman, mother of another target of the ‘sheriff’ and who also ended up arrested. After refusing to cooperate in September 2016 when a police officer told her that he believed – without evidence – that her son had bought a bicycle with stolen money, the same agent later stopped her while driving his vehicle, alleging that both she and her daughter 7-year-olds were not wearing a seatbelt (something she denies). She was prosecuted for resisting authority, assault, and providing false information to an agent.

The sheriff’s office says it uses the information in the software to help and redirect local students, but its critics point to how the algorithm discriminates against children of racial minorities and with disabilities.

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