The user behind “Sondra Price’s” Facebook profile was not Sondra Price. Though it may have shown the real Sondra Price’s picture, and even offered details about Sondra Price that are true (like the fact that she went to Watertown High School), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Timothy Sinnigen created the profile.
These types of “catfish” stories are commonplace in our social media-saturated society, but none of them were government-sanctioned. According to a seemingly unknown court filing, a DEA agent had the right to impersonate someone online without their knowledge.
“Because cell phone owners have a legitimate expectation of privacy of the information stored in their cell phones, a search warrant is required before any police officer can look at its data. When an officer has the authority to search a cell phone, such as when the search is ‘incident to an arrest,’ the search is deemed similar to an officer who searches a closed container on or near the person being arrested,” explains Maria A. Sanders, Attorney at Law at Legislative Intent Service, Inc.
Sinnigen commandeered the identity of Sondra Arquiett, who went by Sondra Prince in 2010 when she was arrested. Using a cell phone that’d been seized by law enforcement, Sinnigen created a dummy Facebook profile in her name, and posted racy photos found on the mobile device in an attempt to lure out other offenders.
Arquiett learned of the catfish profile when a friend asked her why she was posting such questionable pictures on her Facebook. Confused because she hadn’t even set up a Facebook for herself, she looked and found the profile, which displayed photos of her wearing skimpy attire and posing suggestively on the hood of a BMW.
In the court filing, a U.S. attorney acknowledged the catfishing profile, saying that it was created and used “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.” The attorney argued that although she didn’t give “express permission,” she had “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 any ongoing criminal investigations.”
“While traditional search warrant exceptions apply to the search of cell phones, there are no exceptions that protect the “catfish” abuse executed by the officer who set up the unauthorized Facebook profile,” says Sanders
As Anita Allen, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania explains, “I may allow someone to come into my home and search, but that doesn’t mean they can take the photos from my coffee table and post them online.”
Less than 24 hours after the story initially broke on BuzzFeed News, Justice Department spokesperson Brian Fallon said, “The incident at issue in this case is under review by Justice Department officials.”
Facebook has since taken it down, saying that they “removed the profile because it violates our community standards.”