FBI’s Internet Ruse Ruled Offside in World-Cup Gambling Case

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The FBI crossed the line when it cut off the Internet connection of a luxury villa at Caesars Palace to gain access disguised as repairmen, a Las Vegas judge said in tossing evidence gathered during a search of a suspected World Cup gambling den.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon said the ruse violated the right of the villa’s residents to be free from unreasonable searches. Among them was Wei Seng Phua, a high-rolling Malaysian poker player who’s accused of running a gambling hub from the suite.

“This case tests the boundaries of how far the government can go when creating a subterfuge to access a suspect’s premises,” Gordon said in his ruling Friday. “Allowing law enforcement to engage in this conduct would eviscerate the warrant requirement.”

Phua, who also goes by Paul Phua, and a group of Asian men and one woman were arrested in July after technicians at the resort discovered banks of computers and monitors and three TVs switched to World Cup games in one of three villas they occupied. The FBI cut off the Internet connection to Phua’s villa and, lacking a warrant, gained entry while posing as technical staff, according to court filings.

Drop Case?

The ruling marks the first time a federal court has decided whether agents can cut off an Internet connection to gain entry for a search, said Tom Goldstein, one of Phua’s lawyers. The judge tossed everything recovered from Caesars involving Phua, and it’s now up to prosecutors to decide whether to drop the case or proceed on weaker evidence acquired from other villas, he said.

“This was an attempt by the government to pretty radically expand its power to access homes,” Goldstein said in a phone interview.

Natalie Collins, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, didn’t immediately return a call for comment on the ruling.

The judge also rejected evidence the Federal Bureau of Investigation collected during a subsequent raid of Phua’s villa. The judge agreed that the agents misled a magistrate judge when they sought a search warrant.

Phua’s son Darren and others arrested with him pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and returned to Asia, leaving Phua as the remaining defendant.

The case is U.S. v. Phua, 14-cr-00249, U.S. District Court, District of Nevada (Las Vegas).

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