Legal Ethics

Former DA's fake Facebook page, intended to 'snoop' bath salt sales, cited in suspension

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A former Pennsylvania district attorney has been suspended from law practice partly because she created a fake Facebook page to investigate banned sales of bath salts being used as drugs.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller for a year and a day in a Feb. 8 order. She would have to reapply for reinstatement at the end of that period. The Centre Daily Times, the Legal Intelligencer, the Legal Profession Blog and have coverage.

The supreme court acted on the recommendation of its disciplinary board, which said the Facebook page was deceptive. The board also found that Parks Miller had violated ethics rules by sending emails and texts to two judges about pending criminal cases without copying defendants or their lawyers.

The communications with judges “created the appearance of impropriety in the judicial system,” the board said in a Dec. 6 report and recommendation.

The fake Fakebook page was created under the name “Britney Bella” in 2011 to help enforce an injunction entered against stores deemed to be a public nuisance because or their sales of bath salts, according to the report and recommendation. Pending legislation in the state would ban bath salts as illegal drugs, but it hadn’t been enacted.

The Bella page “liked” stores suspected of selling the salts, with the aim of learning about stores offering free samples that could be obtained and tested. The page sent and accepted friend requests to appear legitimate.

The page used photos of young women from the internet “to enhance the page’s allure,” according to the board report.

After creating the page, Parks Miller sent an email to attorneys and staff members of her office that explained she had made a fake Facebook page and it could be used “to befriend defendants or witnesses if you want to snoop,” the board report said.

The Britney Bella page had sent a friend request to a criminal defendant and one of her sons. They did not accept.

Parks Miller had testified that her efforts helped curb a deadly epidemic of bath salts, and the page helped with raids and prosecutions of stores that were selling the drugs. She said she believed the fake page was a legitimate law enforcement operation.

A hearing committee had found the Facebook page didn’t rise to the level of an ethics-rule violation, but the disciplinary board disagreed.

The disciplinary board acknowledged that no ethics case in Pennsylvania has considered whether ethics rules allow a prosecutor to engage in covert social media activity. But other jurisdictions have found deceptive tactics by prosecutors to be ethics violations, the board said.

The disciplinary board concluded that the fake Facebook page and its dissemination to staff members constituted fraudulent and deceptive conduct in violation of ethics rules.

“Regardless of [Parks Miller’s] intent to curb criminal activity in her county, she was not permitted to engage in dishonest conduct,” the board said. The board also said that Parks Miller had induced her staff to engage in dishonest behavior through use of the Facebook page.

Parks Miller has been practicing law since 1994 and has no prior record of discipline. Five character witnesses testified as to her competency as a litigator and her zealous representation of victims.

In an emailed statement to the Centre Daily Times, Parks Miller said a hearing committee had recommended only a three-month suspension, but it was “mysteriously quadrupled.”

She also said the process was unfair, noting that the allegations were deemed admitted when her request to delay the proceedings was denied and the deadline for her to respond had passed. Parks Miller had claimed she couldn’t respond to the ethics allegations because of a judge’s order in a pending grand jury proceeding.

Parks Miller said she started a successful law practice after leaving the DA’s office, and she hopes to continue to serve clients upon her return. In the meantime, she is lining up other jobs in the legal arena.

“I will continue to appear on television as a legal analyst,” she said, “and am working on other legal production projects that delve into the process of, ironically, breakdowns in the justice system.”

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