Australia: Police officer appeals conviction in an effort to keep his job

Last Updated: 22 November 2019
Article by Sonia Hickey

Most Read Contributor in Australia, November 2019

The Queensland Police officer who received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to illegally accessing and using information from a police database is now appealing his sentence.

Senior Constable Neil Punchard was convicted after leaking a domestic violence victim's address to his 'mate' – the woman's abusive partner.

He has now appealed the conviction in an effort to keep his job as a police officer.

The story so far.

In 2014, officer Punchard illegally accessed the Queensland Police Service database (QPRIME) to retrieve the personal address details of a woman known as *Julie.

He then gave that information to his friend, her abusive former partner, a man convicted of domestic violence offences, who later went on to threaten to kill Julie and strap bombs to their two children and blow them up as "martyrs".

What has followed has been a long and protracted legal battle for the victim as she seeks both justice for having her right to privacy violated, and compensation for having her family put into danger. When the officer gave her former partner her new address, she was forced to into hiding.

Many of the facts that were presented during the QCAT hearing, have been embarrassing and damaging for the Queensland Police Force, and the Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll, is now under pressure to sack officer Punchard, who remained on the force until December 2018 when he was stood down after being charged with nine computer hacking offences.

He originally tried to have the case thrown out, but was unsuccessful. And then, last month, almost five years after leaking Julie's information, he pleaded guilty to the hacking offences and was sentenced to two months in prison, wholly suspended for 18 months.

Although his sentence effectively means that he's 'in the clear' so long as he doesn't commit another crime in the next year and a half, it did come with a recorded criminal conviction, which he is now appealing.

Still a police officer

Currently, Neil Punchard remains a serving police officer, performing non-operational tasks. As such, he is still on the QPS payroll. However, a recorded criminal conviction likely gives the QPS a reason to dismiss him, because under the Queensland police discipline processes it is notoriously difficult to dismiss an officer.

Punchard's appeal comes as the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) begins its inquiry into public sector data misuse.

CCC Inquiry

Evidence presented to the CCC shows that police employees were caught illegally accessing data more than 200 times last year. The rates of data misuse among police is more than 26 times the rates of other government departments with similar responsibility for protecting large amounts of private personal information.

Justice advocate Renee Eaves discovered through Right to Information laws that police officers had illegally accessed her file upwards of 1,400 times. She is not alone.

The CCC has compiled a table showing that in 2018-19 there was one data breach for every 75 police. This compares with one in 322 employees at the transport department and one in 1,993 staff within the education department. And it is possible that the real figures could actually be much higher in the QPS, given that there is no systemic auditing of computer use, no additional level or protection given to the data of vulnerable people, and that officers are only investigated when a breach is suspected or a complaint is made.

Data also shows that Queensland's corrective services department has a rate of breaches similar to that of the police force.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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