Credit: Madison Muller

On Friday, an attorney representing ShotSpotter, a gunshot-detection technology company, made the unusual request that a judge in a criminal case hold the company in contempt of court to prevent ShotSpotter from being compelled to release documents about how it assesses gunshot alerts. 

The case stems from a car stop made by Chicago police in November 2021 that culminated in the driver being arrested for a DUI. Attorneys from the Cook County Public Defender Office, contending the police pulled the man over solely based on a ShotSpotter alert, subpoenaed the company as a third party to find out whether that was the case. 

Court documents show that a ShotSpotter alert was recorded on November 7, 2021, near the intersection of Hamlin and Lake Street, on the west side of Garfield Park. At least eight Chicago cops responded to the alert, and two of the responding officers arrested the defendant a few blocks away as he drove down Central Park Avenue, which bisects the park.

ShotSpotter alerts are triggered when one of the system’s acoustic sensors identifies a gunshot, and they often bring police—but the sensors can also incorrectly pick up fireworks and other noises as gunshots. The company employs analysts who review certain alerts in real time and make judgments about what the sensors are actually hearing. Analysts can also reclassify alerts retroactively, days or weeks after a firework has been incorrectly logged as a gunshot, for example.

The defense’s request included ShotSpotter analysts’ qualifications and training materials; any instances in which the company’s analysts reclassified alerts or the Chicago police asked ShotSpotter to do so; and the methods analysts use to reclassify alerts. The defense also requested ShotSpotter produce any data on sensors misidentifying gunfire or the location of alerts, as well as data on gunfire ShotSpotter failed to identify.

Rather than comply, attorneys for the company asked the judge to hold their client in “friendly” contempt of court.

Discovery orders such as these typically cannot be appealed before final judgment is issued. However, contempt-of-court sanctions for violating a discovery order can be appealed. The request for a so-called “friendly” contempt-of-court order is designed to allow ShotSpotter to effectively appeal the discovery order by appealing the contempt order. 

“ShotSpotter is refusing to produce the documents needed to allow the court to decide whether it was reasonable of the police to pull over our client based solely on a ShotSpotter alert, a technology that has repeatedly been shown to be unreliable,” read a statement from the Cook County Defender Office. “Instead of standing by their service and welcoming an opportunity to have the quality of their technology subject to examination in open court, ShotSpotter is delaying a timely resolution of this case for our client.”

Matthew Crowl, an attorney representing ShotSpotter, did not respond to the Reader’s questions by press time. 

The motion in this criminal case comes on the heels of an unrelated civil lawsuit filed against the city of Chicago last week by Lucy Parsons Labs and Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center. That lawsuit accuses the Chicago Police Department of overreliance on a technology that the plaintiffs say rarely leads to evidence of gun crimes. 

The lawsuit cites two cases—both unrelated to the one in which ShotSpotter was held in contempt—in which police made an arrest following the system’s gunshot alerts. In one case, a 65-year-old grandfather was held in Cook County Jail for nearly a year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic before his case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. In another, a 36-year-old man was locked up by cops responding to a ShotSpotter alert. The lawsuit seeks class-action status for anyone the police have stopped in Chicago because of a ShotSpotter alert. It also seeks to bar the city from using the technology.

The next hearing in the DUI case is scheduled for August 23.

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