Senior constable of Queensland Police convicted and receives suspended sentence for releasing personal information of domestic violence victim to ex husband

October 15, 2019 |

The ABC, Guardian and Nine/Fairfax press reports on a Queensland Police Officer, Senior Constable Neil Punchard, who has been convicted and been sentenced to 2 months jail, wholly suspended for 18 months, for leaking personal information of a woman to her ex husband in 2016.  Punchard accessed information relating to the victim on 9 occasions, hence the 9 charges of computer hacking.  The ABC gives the most comprehensive report, including the tortuous history in getting charges laid, stating:

Queensland police officer Senior Constable Neil Punchard has been sentenced to two months’ jail, wholly suspended for 18 months, for leaking the personal details of a domestic violence complainant to her former partner.

Senior Constable Punchard was stood down from official duty in December 2018 after being charged with nine counts of computer hacking.

Punchard accessed confidential police databases, including Q-PRIME, on nine occasions over a year, and passed on the woman’s residential address to her ex-husband, who is now subject to a Domestic Violence Order (DVO).

Punchard on Monday pleaded guilty to all nine counts, after initially trying to have the case thrown out in September.

The woman told the ABC after the sentence was handed down that media reporting was instrumental in her case.

“If it wasn’t for the media I believe I would have been dead,” she said.

“It’s been a long three-year uphill battle fighting for justice. I now understand why so many women die of domestic violence.”

The woman was pregnant with her third child with her current husband at the time the information was shared.

In a victim impact statement submitted to the court, the woman said she and her children were still living in fear.

“Words cannot describe the hurt, stress and deep anxieties that I suffer on a daily basis because of a police officer in a job expected to protect me, did the exact opposite,” she wrote in the statement.

“The fact it was no accident, instead deliberate, and it was calculating, has made it all the more painful — no matter what I do, I cannot feel safe.

“We have had to relocate homes twice because of the privacy breach and not a day goes by when we are not all still looking over our shoulder.

The woman had initially made a complaint to Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) in June 2016, when the matter was referred to the Police Ethical Standards Command.

A decision was made at the time not to charge Punchard.

Two years later when Punchard was eventually charged, he was stood down from his role, however still worked with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) with limited duties.

‘Complete breach of trust’

Prosecutor Angus Edwards told the court Punchard, who was 47 at the time, had been a police officer for over a decade.

He said Punchard was childhood friends with the man he shared the information with, and knew “intrinsically” that he should not have been accessing the systems to assist the man.

“His offending was a complete breach of trust … his job is to protect the Queensland community and he did the exact opposite of that,” Mr Edwards told the court.

The court heard the ex-partner of the woman was not under any DVO at the time, but Punchard was well aware the pair were going through an “acrimonious” break-up.

“He took a risk with [her] safety under those circumstances,” Mr Edwards told the court.

Mr Edwards told the hearing there were “unedifying” text messages between Punchard and his friend about the situation, where he was telling him what to write, provided family law advice, and spoke about the woman in derogatory terms, including “F*** the b**** over legally”, “Make her shit herself” and “I know you’re screaming inside to let loose on her”.

The prosecutor said it was in that context Punchard provided the address of the woman to his friend, later telling him to say he found it out through Freedom of Information (FOI).

The court heard Punchard wrote: “She will be pissed … tell her you got it from his [her husband’s] name not hers, even better just tell her that you know where she lives and leave it at that lol, she will flip. Don’t tell her how.

“Just send her an email saying: ‘I won’t ask you your address any more as I know where you are now … if you won’t comply with court orders, I will have to take matters into my own hands’ — she will f***ing explode. Lmao.”

‘Taking the law into his own hands’

Mr Edwards said Punchard had become thoroughly involved in what was, “a very acrimonious separation, where he himself was inflaming the situation”.

In discussing his sentencing, Punchard’s defence lawyer argued the woman’s ex-husband already knew her street address, but was only asking Punchard for her unit number, to send her family law documents.

The magistrate responded: “He [Punchard] revealed the address of a woman in relation to a dispute he only had one version of, and under circumstances where the emails that he sent, indicated that he thought and was happy to assist [the friend] in taking the law into his own hands”.

A conviction was recorded, with his defence saying Punchard would now likely be subject to further disciplinary action by the QPS.

In a statement, the QPS acknowledged the court’s decision.

“The QPS also acknowledges that the legal process does not conclude until the expiration of the 28-day appeal period and therefore it would be inappropriate for the QPS to provide further comment,” the statement said.

“In the interim, the QPS will be considering the judgment and the member remains stood down.”

The unauthorised access and disclosure of personal information is a chronic problem that plagues police forces.  There still reports of police abusing the LEAP database.  LEAP is an acronym for Law Enforcement Assistance Program.  It is an online database which stores information about all crimes brought to the notice of police as well as well as family incidents and missing persons.   In July 2019 a former Victoria Police police sergeant, Steven John McGillvray, was convicted of misconduct in public office in inappropriately accessing a woman’s details and then turning up at her door.   Last month IBAC published a 33 page report on this subject,  Unauthorised access and disclosure of Information by Victoria Police which with its key findings including:

  • Unauthorised access and disclosure of information are key enablers of other corrupt behaviour. These corruption risks are often overlooked as risks by agencies. This is evident in the lower than expected number of reports made to IBAC, and in the behaviours uncovered in investigations undertaken by IBAC and other public sector agencies. It is expected that as the understanding of information misuse as an enabler of corruption increases, this will help detection and investigation by Victoria Police.
  • Sharing information with approved third parties also presents many corruption risks. Although policies may be in place to control information access and disclosure by third parties, the proactive detection and enforcement of information misuse by agencies owning the information is difficult. This is especially relevant for Victoria Police, which holds significant private personal details about citizens.
  • Increased use of personal devices and smart phones in the workplace has made unauthorised disclosure of information much easier. This is particularly the case for those Victoria Police employees who use their personal mobile phones to conduct their work duties, including using cameras to capture evidence or using applications to take notes or recordings.
  • IBAC intelligence suggests information misuse is under-reported across the entire public sector, including Victoria Police. This may be due to it being under-detected, an under-appreciation for information security and privacy rights, or a lack of awareness that information misuse and disclosure may constitute an offence in itself. At the time this research was being undertaken, Victoria Police did not supply work mobile phones to the majority of its workforce. However, the BlueConnect Mobility Project was anticipated to deploy over 16,000 mobile devices by June 2019, in addition to the mobile devices already used by specialist areas and managers
  • The number of reports of information misuse made to IBAC related to Victoria Police is higher than from other public sector agencies but is also declining. The higher number of reports may be due to Victoria Police employees and members of the public having a higher level of awareness of the risks related to information misuse, due to the large amount of sensitive information their organisation holds. The declining number of reports over time may reflect under-reporting and the difficulties in detection. A recent spike in reported incidents in 2017-18 may reflect improving information security practices by Victoria Police and its employees.
  • Victoria Police and IBAC often do not detect information misuse until they are investigating other misconduct or corrupt actions. This is partly due to information security systems, which have not been fully developed, and a lack of proactive monitoring and auditing processes in place to detect unauthorised information access.
  • Customised auditing of information access is under-utilised by Victoria Police and its benefits are under-appreciated. A program of proactive, extensive and repeated auditing could be used to identify and deter unauthorised access of information.
  • The introduction in 2016 of the Victorian Protective Data Security Framework (VPDSF) and the Victorian Protective Data Security Standards (VPDSS) across the public sector is expected to reduce unauthorised information access and disclosure. For Victoria Police, the VPDSS does not represent a materially higher standard for information security than the previous Standards for Law Enforcement Data Security. However the VPDSS represents a shift from prescriptive standards to a more flexible risk-based approach

The tone of IBAC’s report is far from optimistic, stating at 3.2.1:

“Victoria Police has made few proactive detections of unauthorised disclosure of information, including to the media, political groups and other entities. Disclosure investigations can be resource-intensive and face challenges related to journalists being protected from revealing their sources as outlined in section 3.1.2. High-profile and sensitive matters are usually those which have a greater impact on the community due to the seriousness of offending, the level of harm the alleged offences have caused, or due to the role the people involved have in the community.”

There is a feeling of deja vu in the above report as the problems with unauthorised access and disclosure has been long known by the State the Victoria Police.  In 2001 The Victorian Ombudsman identified the problems with the LEAP database in his Annual Report stating:

By way of background, the Victoria Police computer-based Law Enforcement Assistance Program [LEAP] provides police with online access to a database of particulars relating to crime reports and associated dealings between police and victims/offenders/members of the public. The information on the LEAP system is strictly confidential and is solely for official police use. Release of such information to an unauthorised person is prohibited and LEAP computer screens display a warning that “LEAP or related information must not be used or accessed, directly or indirectly, for personal use”. I view very seriously any unauthorised access or release of information from any police record. During the year, several complaints against police members relating to the alleged misuse of LEAP information were investigated. In most cases, the built in audit trail of the LEAP system readily proved the fact of the alleged access. When interviewed, members have commonly justified their access by reference to some police duty – for example, to avoid forming a possible undesirable personal association; to ascertain from car registration details seen in the vicinity of a member’s home if the member and his family were under possible surveillance or to ascertain whether there were outstanding warrants against a family member. Because of the prevalence of these types of justifications, which, of course, also raise issues of potential conflict of interest, I have suggested to police the need to strengthen current Victoria Police instructions and procedures in relation to the use and access of LEAP or related information. Police have agreed in principle with my view and the matter is now under active consideration with one possible outcome being the introduction of a computer security (reason for access) screen.

What is surprising about the Punchard case is that,first, he is still a member of Queensland Police.  The typical response by police officers caught red handed misusing a database is to resign or retire.  In this case the Queensland Police are reportedly (in Guardian and Nine/Fairfax) delaying a decision on whether to sack Punchard, with the ostensible reason being to let the appeal process run and that he has 28 days to file an appeal.  Given Punchard pleaded guilty any appeal would be about sentence.  As such the breach is admitted.  The Commissioner’s delay is more likely a demonstration of the power of the police union in staying decisive action by management.

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