DEA Impersonated Woman, Set Up Fake Facebook Page, Posted Photos From Her Seized Phone To Make It Look Real

from the extra-questionable dept

Chris Hamby, over at Buzzfeed, has an incredible and crazy story about the DEA impersonating a woman, creating a fake Facebook profile without her knowledge or permission, and posting photos from her seized cell phone, all in order to try to get information from others. The specifics involve a woman, Sondra “Sosa” Arquiett, who was apparently the girlfriend of Jermaine Branford, a guy who was accused of (and eventually pleaded guilty to) drug trafficking. Arquiett was a minor player, charged with basically allowing Branford to use her apartment for storing and processing the cocaine he was trafficking. Arquiett was eventually sentenced to probation.

Where this gets interesting, however, is that Arquiett has now filed a civil suit against the US and DEA agent Timothy Sinnigen, who allegedly set up the fake Facebook account. Arquiett claims she never had a Facebook account, and only found out about the fake DEA one when a friend mentioned something about photos she was posting — photos that the DEA had from seizing her phone. The details are laid out clearly in the lawsuit. Arquiett was arrested in July of 2010. By August, Sinnegen had set up the fake Facebook profile using information and photos from her phone, without telling Arquiett at all. Arquiett notes that:

The photographs used by Sinnigen included revealing and/or suggestive photographs of Plaintiff, including photographs of the Plaintiff in her bra and panties. Sinnigen also posted photographs of Plaintiff’s minor child and her minor niece to Facebook.

The DEA then allegedly used the fake profile to try to contact other acquaintances who may have been involved in drug trafficking. This went on for at least three months before she discovered it. Sinnigen apparently flat out admitted it when confronted about it. Arquiett notes that, beyond the basic invasion of privacy reasons to be concerned, the whole thing may have put her in danger:

… by posing as her on Facebook, Sinnegen had created the appearance that Plaintiff was willfully cooperating in his investigation of the narcotics trafficking ring, thereby placing her in danger.

In the DEA’s response to the lawsuit, they admit to setting up the fake profile and contacting possible drug dealers, but insist this is all perfectly fine.

Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations.

It’s one thing to say “use the information seized for investigations” and quite another to “fake my identity and pretend to be me.” Furthermore, the response argues:

Plaintiff relinquished any expectation of privacy she may have had to the photographs contained on her cell phone.

Plaintiff consented to the search of her cell phone.

Plaintiff consented to use of information contained on her cell phone in ongoing criminal investigations.

Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of her substantive due process rights because she has not, and cannot, allege that Defendant Sinnigen?s alleged actions were taken with the absence of a legitimate governmental interest.

Again, consenting to the use of the information is very different from saying “hey, go impersonate me.” But, again, this is the DEA we’re talking about, and they have quite a bit of history to playing fast and loose with legal boundaries to try to go after folks. Buzzfeed quotes numerous legal experts saying it’s a massive stretch to go from consenting to using the information in an investigation, to arguing that means it’s okay to impersonate the individual and pretend they’re engaged in ongoing conversations with potential drug dealers.

This effort also almost certainly violates Facebook’s terms of service, though it’s unclear how Facebook feels about law enforcement folks doing so. Either way, it’s yet another example of very questionable investigative techniques used online by law enforcement, and the DEA in particular.

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Comments on “DEA Impersonated Woman, Set Up Fake Facebook Page, Posted Photos From Her Seized Phone To Make It Look Real”

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Anonymous Coward says:

For starters that sounds like willful and perhaps criminal copyright infringement by posting those pictures. At $150,000 per picture and possible treble damages that sounds like a hefty payday at taxpayer expense. I personally would be happy with the agents involved being fired and their pensions being paid out to the plaintiff.

Anonymous Coward says:

While I’m all for our law enforcement cracking down on drug dealers, I’m bothered by what the government has said in its response:

“Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations”

Excuse me? Plaintiff implies consent by storing images on her cell phone? I’ve owned many cell phones before and I have never read anything about giving up my right to privacy for storing images on my cell phone.

Just how in the name of GOD, all that’s HOLY and U.S. law does the government come up with this weak ass excuse unless you are a total moron with a ‘let’s make up the law as we along and rewrite the rules along the way’ type of mentality.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

She’s probably not exactly rich. She probably doesn’t have a lot of money and resources to go after the government for their wrongdoings. So it’s perfectly fine for the government to do anything they want. It’s not like she matters even if the government does wrongfully put her in danger. The war on drugs is a far more important cause. After all it helps keep law enforcement employed and they are far more important than she is.

Anonymous Coward says:

In response to Paragraph 11 of the Complaint, Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the creation of the Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations.

No. When you tell the police that they can use your phone to assist in their investigation, you assume that they want to look at the contents of the phone and see who your contacts are. You don’t expect them to take the pictures on your phone to create a fake Facebook account.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“When you tell the police that they can use your phone to assist in their investigation, you assume that they want to look at the contents of the phone and see who your contacts are.”

Well now we know we shouldn’t assume that. So if we write and sign (and carry with the phone) a statement that the information may not be republished or distributed outside of LEO premises or personnel, and insist that LEO take that written statement along with the property (eg phone), I wonder if a court would find that binding. Maybe not but worth a try and at least places on the record that no permission has been granted to do what happened in this case. This would be similar to writing on health consent forms that no out-of-network services are to be used and that the person will under no circumstances be liable for out-of-network charges incurred without explicit written consent – which has worked for some people.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I would refine that a bit. Never volunteer or consent to anything with the police under any circumstances. However, know your rights and after clarifying that you are being ordered to do something and that you aren’t consenting to anything, comply with their orders. If there’s an issue with the legality of them, take it up in front of a judge.

Anonymous Coward says:

What if?

I’m european so my knowleadge of US laws concerning the diffrense between warrant and consent are a bit fuzzy but here is a scenario.

Sondra loses the suit.
Now a court has declared that everything found during a “consented search” can be used however law enforcement want. It doesn’t have to be illegal, evidence or related to a crime in any way. The search won’t even have to lead to charges. And it doesn’t matter if it put anyone in danger.

“If you don’t have anything to hide, you dont have anything to fear.” suddenly becomes the greatest lie ever told.
It was technicaly true earlier asuming you din’t breake the law (witch everyone does in some way) or that the police screw things up or lie (wich they do).
Suddenly you get it in black on white. No matter what you do… No matter the situation… Even if lives are at stake… NEVER EVER cooperate with law enforcement in any way. Because then they can put your life in danger, legaly.
Suddenly everyone even with the cleanest conscious have a reason to not consent to anything.

That can be the best and the worst thing that has happened to the US since the declaration of independence. The day that everyone in law enforcement becomes the public enemy no.1. Would you let your brother who is a cop into your house? Can you afford to take the chance?
On the positive side, that can topple a bad system and force a re-evaluation of the basic rights of all US citizens.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: What if?

“If you don’t have anything to hide, you dont have anything to fear.” suddenly becomes the greatest lie ever told.

I think it still falls a little lower on the list:

1) Of the People, for the People
2) To protect and serve
3) Size doesn’t matter
4) If you don’t have anything to hide, you dont have anything to fear

But it is still in the top 5.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: What if?

“Now a court has declared that everything found during a “consented search” can be used however law enforcement want.”

I’m guessing that this ruling will be overturned on appeal. It doesn’t even pass that giggle test. However, even if it’s not overturned then it just reinforces one of the basic rules of dealing with the police: never consent to a search under any circumstances.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What if?

I agree that one judge saying something, isnt that big of a deal. But unless the final verdict in highest instance this can reach is that the agent did very, very wrong… then things might truly go to shit.

Any scenario where the woman (Sondra) loses, is scary. Think slipery slope were a specific consent like: search my car, implies consent to use my car as bait to catch car thieves.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Huh?

“Reasonable person” is a naturally vague term. However, as used in court there is a little bit of hope here. From (emphasis added):

Reasonable Person

A phrase frequently used in tort and Criminal Law to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability.

The decision whether an accused is guilty of a given offense might involve the application of an objective test in which the conduct of the accused is compared to that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances. In most cases, persons with greater than average skills, or with special duties to society, are held to a higher standard of care. For example, a physician who aids a person in distress is held to a higher standard of care than is an ordinary person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Huh?

…the point remains, however, that there is no incentive for LEOs to actually follow the law as written. Even by the standards of ‘Reasonable Person’ you’ve outlined there, any semi-competent attorney could find about seven loopholes to permit this behaviour.

And I’m damned sure that the LEOs will have that kind of attorney.

Anonymous Coward says:

"civil forfeiture" taken one step further?

If “civil forfeiture” laws allow police to confiscate a person’s property without due process and use it however they see fit, then who’s to say that a person’s identity is not also confiscatable property?

This sort of thing already happens with websites, servers, and other online “identities” that police take over to use as a law enforcement tool.

So if it’s (apparently) legal for police to spoof a website’s identity, or take over a person’s online chatroom identity, then it’s only one step further to spoof a flesh-and-blood person’s identity, is it not?

Anonymous Coward says:

Fake dea agent pages?

How about some made up DEA agent facebook pages. Maybe someone could follow a few home from work, snap a few photos with their kids (from a public roadway of course) and then post as them a facebook page looking for drugs and such.

This is why criminals are starting to have more legitimacy than the cops trying to bust them.

Anonymous Coward says:

The government put her life directly in danger. This is no different than a murder witness who refuses to testify and then the police tell the murder suspect that the witness has agreed to testify against him.

The fact is that the government put this woman’s life in immediate danger where she faces death at the hands of these drug dealers and where the government hadn’t even discussed anything about this with her.

Just WTF did the government think it was doing?

Crystal says:

Re: Re:

They also put her family in danger. I can’t believe that they thought that it was a good idea to post pictures of her child and niece in their quest to take down drug dealers. I have no doubt that they will get away with putting her in danger but I hope there will be consequences for endangering and violating the rights of two innocent children.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wonderful! So now it’s not only that the officers and agents themselves share pictures and information among themselves for giggles, but also that they suddenly can use whatever they like in other places as well?
They keep saying that if we cooperate we have nothing to fear, and they keep proving that statement wrong.
Where exactly is our incentive for helping in so called “law enforcement”?
If my buddy from school turned drug dealer, with this as an example, what is to stop them from dragging my ass in for something completely bogus in order to get to my phone?
This is really insane.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you do not cooperate you get sent to prison, or maybe they say you went for their gun during interrogation and you end up with a few bullets in the back of your head.

These are criminals. they control the Police, the courts, the DoJ for the most part, since most of the those people are acting like criminals I see no differance

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m assuming this is referring to the court that found her guilty. She introduced the DEA’s misbehavior as part of her defense, and the court didn’t consider it important (and, I would argue, the court shouldn’t have found it important in determining whether she was guilty.)

I agree that characterizing this as a court saying the DEA’s actions are “just fine” is highly misleading. We’ll have to see what happens as a result of her lawsuit. I hope she wins it easily.

Anon says:

Key Opps

Posters seem to be missing the key screwup by the DEA.

They published pictures of two MINORS! No court in the U.S. is going to construe that this woman consented to publication of her own child’s picture. Worse, she could not have consented to publication of pictures of someone else’s child.

Completely separate from this woman’s cause of action under the 13th Amendment; either DEA is going to throw this jerk under a large bus, or the lawyers for the kids are going to own the DEA budget.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Key Opps

An excellent point. Posting pictures of these children puts them directly in harms way. One of the cocaine dealers she ratted out could use these pictures to locate, identify and kidnap her children. Using them as a way of getting back at her.

I suspected when law enforcement invokes “think of the children!”, they really don’t mean it and are using children as a pretext to push their own hidden agendas.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think we’re a little past complaining at this point though. This story is egregious, is it not time to storm the Bastille?

They keep ratcheting up their abuses, when will this thing finally explode? Oh wait that’s right, it’s Tuesday and [insert show here] starts at 8pm. Oh, and i still need to get through all the seasons of [insert second show here].

Mr. Fenderson i’m genuinely curious, in your opinion is the world leaning more toward Idiocracy, 1984, Catch 22, or Brave New World? Or perhaps we’re entering some unholy matrimony of all four combined?

Secondly, what would it take for you, personally, to put down the placard and pick up a torch? Or are you beyond such crude resolutions (revolutions)?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“in your opinion is the world leaning more toward Idiocracy, 1984, Catch 22, or Brave New World?”

None of those fit well. We are living in a corporatocracy, a fascist state.

“Secondly, what would it take for you, personally, to put down the placard and pick up a torch?”

You’re assuming that I haven’t already. My comments here are far from the total of the efforts I put in with this problem.

Nicci Stevens (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This story is deeply disturbing. Guys, the government works for us and at our indulgence. Is this the kind of power you want to grant your government over you?

If you are a regular reader of this site you should know that that is farthest from the truth. The big lie is that the USA is a Democratic Republic. It’s not it’s an oligarchy. We work and suffer at the pleasure of the rich who determine the laws and the policies that affect the other 99%.

Law enforcement is routinely given a pass when they, themselves, violate the laws they are sworn to protect. Rather than being held to a higher standard they are held to a lower one. In the largest city in my state, 20% of all homicides are committed by police officers yet they are not held accountable. Even when the DOJ says they have gone too far and levy responsibilities on the police which, from a poor white trash’s perspective seem to be a joke, the police officers sue to have the reforms reversed. When there is public outcry over the death of a citizen and demands the prosecutor convene a grand jury, it doesn’t happen. This happens all over the country. I saw, on the news this evening, a case where police pulled a vehicle over because of unworn seatbelts. A passenger in the car would not produce identification nor step out of the car. The cops were white and the passenger african-american. The police broke the window, removed the man from the car in front of his children who were videotaping the incident, threw him on the ground and tased him. Their reason was they were in fear for their lives because he might have a weapon — he did not. He would not leave the vehicle because he was in fear of his life. Who was more credible? Look at places such as Ferguson, MO, Fullerton, CA, Bakersfield, CA, Cleveland, OH, and many more places.

Getting back to the issue at hand and the comment I am replying to. The government has entitled itself to unfettered access to our lives, our persons and our property with which it can do what it wants and we have only the recourse of civil suit — sometimes.

The bill of rights is being routinely used as metaphorical toilet paper for a government that is bereft of honor and responsibility to those who put them in power. It is not the people who put them there — this is neither a red/blue state issue, nor is it a partisan issue. By and large the people who do these things are not beholden to the voters, congress nor the courts. They act above the law because, in effect, they are.

TOPDOG1 (profile) says:

EVERYTHING BUT THE GOOSESTEP. What next? Going into emergency rooms and arresting accident victims and doctors for using pain medication. The D.E.A. and the F.D.A. are becoming Americas version of the S.S. These out of control authoritarian sociopaths need to be restrained. Their methods have become so under-handed and unscrupulous that none should be allowed to bring a case to court. It is time for us all to stop the funding and the the untold billions they have miss-used, miss-appropriated and commandeered. The States don’t need the D.E.A. I don’t need the D.E.A. You don’t need the D.E.A. We don’t need the D.E.A. Nobody needs the D.E.A. Other countries that allow access to pain medication don’t have a drug problem.The sooner the D.E.A. ,F.D.A. and other law enforcement groups are either controlled or redirected the sooner the drug problem will go away. The D.E.A. was a bad idea from the start and it has gotten worse. It is time to cut funding for their war on drugs which has turned into an all-out war on the American people that targets mostly pot smokers and the homeless and now doctors and anybody with enough wealth to take.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Sinnigen's wake

I really would like to know which of the following uses of the data from a phone Sinnigen would consider improper: Seizing the phone owner’s bank accounts using the banking app on the phone? Publishing an adult’s selfie nudes for profit? Offering to sell drugs in the owner’s name…and then arresting the owner for offering to sell drugs?

This Facebook scheme certainly seems improper to me; so improper that anyone but a LEO would be prosecuted for identity theft.

With all the profitable schemes people like Sinnigen can come up with, no wonder people like him don’t want phones to be encrypted.

Zonker says:

So they’re claiming that there was a “legitimate government interest” in her bra and panties, child, and niece’s photos? Is there a “legitimate government interest” in publishing these previously very private photos publicly online for the whole world to see? Using information found on her phone in ongoing criminal investigations is not the same as taking her identity and using it as an undercover informant against her will or knowledge.

Shall we seize Sinnigen’s phone and use any photos of him in a state of undress or of his children and impersonate him online for a child sex trafficking investigation? I’m sure he would have no objection as this is considered acceptable law enforcement practice where he comes from.

Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

Zonker says:

Also absent his admission of impersonation, what would stop him or any other LEO from using the fake account as evidence against her for violating her parole or additional crimes she did not commit? What are the chances a jury would even be allowed to see any evidence that the profile was faked? This opens the door to prosecuting people for crimes committed by the LEOs themselves while impersonating them should they choose to do so.

anonymous says:

I realize this is an older post but after investigating how intriguing this was- I just had to comment.

Most of the FEDS are repulsive, abusive beings…yes. But I feel Sondra got a great deal and this is probably the best case scenario that could of happened to her.

For her part in the ” conspiracy to distribute cocaine” she was looking at life in prison according to my news sources. She did no time at all- just probation. This is a very serious charge!

I am only speculating here as this is not based on fact- her lawyer for the drug charges was Donald Kinsella, a lawyer in Albany- my thought is during representing this woman it was discovered she had a FB page in which Mr.Kinsella told her to take down promptly- I am again,speculating.

After investigating, Mr.Kinsella is a criminal and white collar crime lawyer the kind that routinely handles RICO and drug crimes. Probably not a lawyer you would get for civil rights violations. An administrative lawyer would be your best option.

After further investigation it was discovered this DEA agent had been the one to create the fake account. Realize just how hard it would be for the average person to realize, let alone convince anyone the DEA is posing as you on FB!! The standard answer is ” You’re crazy!

At this point the cards are all stacked in Sondras favor. The average non- criminal in this situation would be looking at a million dollar plus settlement- she got a very ridiculous, small amount I think it was $130,00…Really?!

Think about it…$130,000 and NO jail time is a deal I would make quickly. So, yes- this sounds bad but I really think she made out like a bandit.

Also nothing at all, NOTHING stops the FEDS from doing this- criminal or not. It happens daily and many people do not realize it or when they do it is too late.

We only hear this story because a lawyer is involved. The more vulnerable the victim, the harder the abuse- they know most people they victimize have little to no support or resources. They are predators.

Had she and her lawyer not been able to make a deal and it ended up costing the FEDS millions, guaranteed she would be dead- never see that money-they would kill her. If they could not kill her, they would try to get her committed, fabricate evidence she is a drug addict, prostitute, have a car run her off the road, have CPS terrorize her, shove a needle in her arm, make her go crazy. They are gang stalkers- they are sick individuals.

Yes, as a post above states- encrypt your phone and take your privacy and security seriously and do whatever else you need to do and by any means necessary to protect yourself. We are all just one ” Privacy Act” away from invasion on the grounds of ” terrorism” the catch all for warantless, wiretapping and surveillance.

Also most of the case is redacted and under court seal. Why? Something to hide?

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