DEA Agent Set Up Sham Facebook Page to Aid Investigation, Woman Sues
Police and Federal Agents have long used scams, stings, and ruses to catch criminals. Methods employed in the past to catch criminals have included mailings to fugitives informing them that they have won prizes, posting fake information on websites to lure child sex offenders to meetings with fictitious underage individuals for illegal activities, and even complicated multi-year undercover operations where agents, acting as members of a criminal organization, elicit inside information and evidence.
The actions of FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone, aka “Donnie Brasco”, who was able to infiltrate New York’s Bonanno crime Family, helped convict key members of the family, and brought this important investigative technique front and center in the film “Donnie Brasco.” All of these methods have in common the cooperation of police and federal agents, who agree to put themselves in dangerous situations, in order to investigate and convict criminals. This week it has come to light that a Special Agent of the DEA has pushed the boundaries of scams, stings, and ruses, and many legal experts believe that he may have pushed it too far.
This matter concerns a young woman who was arrested by law enforcement officials acting in cooperation with the DEA, alleging that she was a part of a drug distribution ring. The young woman was given a relatively light sentence of probation, but before the trial began, a DEA Special Agent, in an attempt to develop more information on the organization took an unusual and unprecedented step. At the time of her arrest, the young woman allowed officers access to her cell phone.
Later, a DEA Special Agent took some of the photos and information contained on the phone, created a Facebook page, and began communicating with individuals as if he were the young woman. The woman found out about the matter through friends, and filed suit against the agent saying that the agent violated her privacy, and had put her in a dangerous position by sending a friend request to an individual who is currently a fugitive from justice. In its initial response the government advised that by allowing the agent access to her phone she expressly implied that she was willing to cooperate in this manner, but after the matter hit the media, the Justice Department advised that the matter is under further review.
Since the US Constitution came into force in 1789, it is clear that the original framers could not have imagined the advances in technology, communication, and the importance of social media that now impact our lives. Those advances must be carefully considered in these matters, as failure to do so could put the hard work of many police and federal agents in jeopardy.
While the courts will decide this matter, prudent use policies put into place by law enforcement could address these issues, and prevent further complications. Cooperating witnesses routinely assist in the investigations of criminal matters, but before they do, are carefully questioned, informed, and advised of the nature of their cooperation. Had the agent in question approached the young woman and obtained either her consent, or denial, this matter would not be in court. Short cuts, attempted with good intentions by industrious law enforcement personnel, often times result in long and costly delays. Prudent law enforcement officers obtain expressed and explicit written consent from cooperating witnesses before involving them in ongoing investigations, using an individual’s personal information to create a Facebook page would seem to be in that same realm.
David Browne, J.D., spent over 14 years as a Special Agent in the FBI and most recently as a Crime Analyst at the University of Chicago for six years. He earned a J.D. law degree from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Michigan. He is currently program chair of Security Studies at Colorado Technical University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
Image credit: flickr/mehfuz