WATERTOWN, NY — A woman has filed a federal lawsuit after a DEA agent set up a fake online profile in her name, complete with personal information, personal photographs, and fraudulently attributed messages. The Department of Justice claims that government agents have the right to commandeer citizens’ identities in the pursuance of law enforcement.
The case stems back to July 2010, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested Ms. Sondra Arquiett (AKA Sondra Prince) on a drug charge. She was accused of being a part of a conspiracy to distribute drugs led by her boyfriend, Jermaine Branford.
During the course of her arrest, an agent obtained her cell phone, allegedly by consent. With the cell phone in his possession, DEA Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen had access to a trove of personal information about Ms. Arquiett, including her contacts, photographs, and other data.
Once released, Ms. Arquiett had her phone returned to her and was not aware that the data had been copied and compromised.
Without Ms. Arquiett’s knowledge, Special Agent Sinnigen secretly used her personal info to create a fake Facebook profile in her name, where he masqueraded as her online and used it to spy on her friends. The agent sent “friend requests” to people she was known to associate, and even made posts using personal nicknames.
The agent posted pictures of Ms. Arquiett’s young son and niece, as well as some “selfie” photographs of Ms. Arquiett and photos of her posing on top of a shiny BMW.
Ms. Arquiett was finally made aware of the fraudulent account when one of her friends asked her about it, later in 2010. She had not previously registered for a Facebook account and was shocked to discover a false account in her name.
Ms. Arquiett filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Syracuse regarding the fraudulent use of her identity in June 2013, after the drug case had been settled and she had served weekend incarceration for several months. Her complaint alleged that the counterfeit page caused her “fear and great emotional distress,” and gave “dangerous individuals” the impression that she was cooperating with the DEA, endangering her life.
Responding to the complaint, U.S. Attorney Karen Folster Lesperance acknowledged that the fake Facebook profile in Ms. Arquiett’s name had been created and used; that personal photographs had been posted; that friend requests had been sent; that the actions were taken without Ms. Arquiett’s knowledge. However, the government argued that Ms. Arquiett “implicitly consented” by granting police access to her cell phone at some point during the criminal investigation, and stated that it was done “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
The public might not have known about the incident if Ms. Arquiett had not filed the lawsuit. Legal experts have called it a “dangerous expansion of the idea of consent,” paving the way for the government to practically become identity thieves in the name of enforcing the law.