A Queensland Court has set aside the conviction of a Police Officer who hacked into the State’s confidential database, and then gave the address of a domestic violence victim to his ‘mate’, the woman’s abusive former partner.
Senior Constable Neil Punchard has had his conviction for computer hacking offences overturned after he was initially sentenced to a two month suspended prison sentence – meaning a conviction was recorded against his name but he did not have to spend time behind bars.
Officer Punchard, who pleaded guilty to nine computer hacking offences and was sentenced in 2019, has won an appeal against the severity of his sentence by having his conviction set aside and, instead, being ordered to undertake 140 hours of community service without the recording of a conviction.
In New South Wales, any order which contains community service must be accompanied by a criminal conviction, but the situation in Queensland is different in so far as a court may order community service without recording a conviction.
The story so far
Mr Punchard’s case highlighted the misuse of the state’s QPrime database, which a recent investigation found has been systemically accessed by officers without authorisation.
Unfortunately, Mr Punchard’s actions have had serious consequences for his victim Julie* who lived in fear of her former partner because he had threatened to kill her as well as strap bombs to their two children and blow them up as “martyrs”.
He was a friend of Mr Punchard, who when handing over Juiie’s address to his mate quipped: “Just tell her you know where she lives and leave it at that. Lol. She will flip.”
In a subsequent message, Mr Punchard wrote: “The police will contact you if they want to speak to you – then you give them my name. That is your ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.”
Julie had to relocate her family after her address was leaked, and has since spent several years battling the Police force for compensation with a long and drawn out battle through the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT).
Victim’s ongoing battle for compensation
Last year, the Queensland Police Force (QPS) was ordered to pay Julie compensation but it was revealed earlier this year that the legal terms of the settlement presented to Julie meant that she was open to liability of for any future action brought by third-parties, including police officers and other people whose details were accessed by Neil Punchard.
It’s understood the clause could also make her liable for any wrongful dismissal case brought against the police by Neil Punchard. Negotiations around the settlement are still continuing, which is shameful in itself given that her fight for compensation has already taken a number of years.
What’s also deplorable is the determination with which QPS has fought the case of an officer who clearly – by his own eventual admission of guilt – did the wrong thing. QPS has spent thousands of dollars on top notch legal representation, while the victim Julie, has represented herself.
Despite the media attention and the political discussion the case has generated, the ongoing saga shows a disgraceful and problematic attitude in police response to incidents of family violence.
Suspended on full pay
The fact that Mr Punchard’s conviction has now been set aside and replaced by a non-conviction order could mean the QPS will allow him to keep his job. He was stood down from frontline duty in 2018 and suspended in 2019 on full pay.
The controversial decision is likely to receive backlash from around the country.
District court judge Craig Chowdhury said he took into account Punchard’s age, 54, and his likelihood of gaining other employment if sacked from the police service.
“There was no specific evidence before me that a conviction would result in the appellant’s dismissal from the police service, but that was the implication made by the solicitor for the appellant in the court below.
“Logically a conviction for a serious offence would result in an officer’s dismissal.”
In deciding not to record a conviction, Judge Chowdhury also took into account the serious nature of the offences; that Punchard had already been disciplined by the police service; that Punchard had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at the time; and his “otherwise good character attested to by … referees, including senior police officers”.
There are calls for Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll (who has so far remained steadfastly silent on the issue) to terminate officer Punchard now the full court process has concluded.
In a statement the QPS acknowledged “that a failure to discharge prescribed responsibilities in an ethical, professional and lawful manner erodes public trust and confidence in the QPS, and that “the unlawful or improper use of information can have significant consequences and impacts for those individuals whose privacy have been breached, and has expressed sincere regret.”
But at this point, Mr Punchard’s future with the force remains unclear, which is cold comfort for his victim and indeed any Queensland resident putting their faith in the police force, because despite breaking the law, and putting another person’s life in jeopardy, the officer has faced minimal consequences.