police officer who leaked address of domestic violence victim has conviction overturned
Senior Constable Neil Punchard ordered to complete 140 hours of community service instead of suspended jail sentence.
A court has overturned a suspended jail sentence and conviction handed to a police officer who hacked into a confidential computer system and leaked the address of a domestic abuse victim to her violent former partner.
Senior Constable Neil Punchard pleaded guilty to nine counts of computer hacking last year and was initially sentenced to two months’ prison, wholly suspended.
On Tuesday, the Queensland district court set aside those penalties, ordered Punchard to instead complete 140 hours of community service, and determined that no conviction be recorded.
In Queensland, the long-running case has deeply embarrassed the police service and exposed widespread problematic attitudes in police response to incidents of family violence.
Punchard was stood down from frontline duty in 2018 and formally suspended in 2019, on full pay. The successful appeal and the lack of a recorded conviction may mean police are unable to now sack him.
In 2014, Punchard accessed two separate police computer systems to obtain the address of a woman and other details. He sent it to her estranged husband, his childhood friend.
The recipient of the text message would later be convicted of domestic violence offences. He threatened to kill his former wife and strap bombs to their children.
“Just tell her you know where she lives and leave it at that. Lol,” Punchard wrote to his friend after sending the address.
In another message, he said: “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,” Punchard wrote in another message.
In his decision, 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.”
The judgment said there was “no evidence [put before the court] to indicate that [Punchard] was aware of any allegation of domestic violence” and that the officer had claimed he checked whether any order was in place before acting.
In deciding not to record a conviction, 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”.
That support lent to Punchard by senior police officers has particularly upset the woman whose privacy was breached, Julie, who has consistently battled with police to take her complaints seriously.
“That shows how seriously police take the risk to me, the fact I still spend my life looking over my shoulder, living in fear,” Julie told Guardian Australia.
Julie called on the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, to sack Punchard now the court process had concluded.
“How can any victim of domestic violence trust a police officer if they know this police officer can do what he did and not get sacked,” Julie said.
“I’m disgusted, shocked that he has had his conviction not recorded. But it doesn’t change the facts of the case and that he pleaded guilty. They can’t dispute that he unlawfully accessed the database, and he gave the information to a man from who I was hiding.
“The fact police still employ him shows they don’t care.”
Carroll had deferred any decision on whether to sack or further discipline Punchard until after the appeal process had concluded.
It is understood that police, having already investigated and disciplined Punchard, have sought legal advice and may no longer have a sufficient cause to terminate his employment.
After Punchard pleaded guilty, the police minister, Mark Ryan, said: “like many members of the community, I think there should be consequences for Mr Punchard for his actions.”
The Queensland police service said in a statement it would consider the outcome of the Punchard’s appeal.
“The officer remains suspended from duty.
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