US settles case over DEA agents setting up fake Facebook page

This image obtained by The Associated Press shows a Facebook page for "Sondra Prince." The Justice Department said Tuesday it is reviewing a woman's complaint that a Drug Enforcement Administration agent set up a fake Facebook account using her identity. Sondra Arquiett, who was arrested on drug charges 2010 for her role in a suspected drug distribution network, is suing the agent in federal court in the Northern District, in upstate New York. The case is scheduled go to trial in Albany, New York. The Justice Department is also investigating the practice of making a fake profile. (AP Photo)
This image obtained by The Associated Press shows a Facebook page for "Sondra Prince." (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department has reached a $134,000 settlement with a New York woman after federal drug agents used information from her cellphone to set up a fake Facebook page in her name, a tactic that raised privacy concerns and led to a federal government review of the ruse, according to court papers filed Tuesday.

The government did not admit wrongdoing as part of its settlement with Sondra Arquiett, which comes months after a judge referred both sides into mediation. But after initially defending the actions, the Justice Department in October said it would review whether the undercover tactic went too far.

The settlement settles allegations that the Drug Enforcement Administration took photos and other information from Arquiett’s cellphone to create a fake Facebook page in hopes of tricking her friends and associates into revealing incriminating drug secrets. A DEA agent created the fake social media page after Arquiett was arrested as part of a drug investigation. Court papers show she pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and was sentenced in 2012 to time served and given a period of home confinement.

She sued the federal government last year, saying she suffered “fear and great emotional distress” and was endangered because the fake page gave the impression that she was cooperating with a federal investigation.

The Justice Department initially defended the creation of the page in court filings, saying that Arquiett “implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cellphone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in … ongoing criminal investigations.”

The DEA’s settlement with Arquiett closes out the first of a series of recently disclosed high-profile and widely criticized undercover investigations by federal agents that involved questionable tactics.

In the wake of disclosures about the fake Facebook page, criminal defendants in an Internet gambling case in Las Vegas accused FBI agents of posing as computer technicians to surreptitiously gain access to multiple luxury high-roller suits where the gamblers were accused of running an illegal online sports betting ring.

The group of Asian gamblers accused government agents of intentionally shutting off Internet service to the rooms so they could pose as repairmen and enter the suits to gather evidence.

Under U.S. law, a person whose property is inspected generally must waive his constitutional protections against unreasonable searches unless authorities obtain a warrant. Evidence collected improperly is not supposed to be used at trial.

A federal judge hearing the case in Las Vegas has not yet ruled on the legality of the government’s actions.

In another case, the FBI sent a fake news story it attributed to The Associated Press to trick a suspect in a bomb-threat case into clicking on the website link and revealing his location. The AP objected that the FBI’s practice was “unacceptable” and “undermined AP’s credibility.”

Since details of the 2007 case emerged late last year FBI Director James Comey has said he was “not willing to say never” when asked if the FBI would swear off future use of the tactic in response to an Associated Press demand for such a promise.

As part of the settlement, Arquiett agreed to dismiss her lawsuit.

___

Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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