The Queensland Court of Appeal has reinstated the wholly suspended jail term given to a police officer convicted of computer hacking that resulted in the leaking of the address of a domestic violence victim.
On Friday 13 August the court granted an application by the Commissioner of Police to appeal a District Court judge’s decision to decrease the penalty handed to Neil Punchard on charges of computer hacking more than eight years ago.
On 14 October 2019, Magistrate Tina Previtera sentenced Punchard to two months’ jail, wholly suspended for 18 months, after he pleaded guilty to nine counts of using a restricted computer without consent and cause or intend to cause detriment, damage or gain between 30 July 2013 and 17 July 2014.
The maximum penalty for the offence was five years’ imprisonment.
Magistrate Previtera had been told Punchard, a Senior Constable of police who began his service in September 2002, accessed two separate confidential computer systems to obtain the address of a woman and other details, and then sent them to her estranged husband.
The court was told the woman, whose address Punchard passed on to a childhood friend, had not given her former partner her address because she maintained she was the victim of domestic violence.
The woman was forced to move once Punchard provided her former spouse with her address.
Ms Previtera, as well as sentencing Punchard to a jail term, also recorded convictions against him for the offences.
On 1 September 2020, Punchard successfully appealed his sentence in the Beenleigh District Court on the grounds it was manifestly excessive, with Judge Craig Chowdhury setting it aside and submitting it with 140 hours of unpaid community service and no convictions recorded.
On 28 September 2020, Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll appealed Judge Chowdhury’s decision, saying the sentence imposed by the Magistrate Previtera was “within the sound exercise of the sentencing discretion.
She further submitted: “The decision of the learned District Court Judge (Chowdhury) does not reflect general deterrence considerations and has the tendency to erode public confidence in the Queensland Police Service (QPS)”.
The Court of Appeal, comprising President Justice Walter Sofronoff and Justices Hugh Fraser and Debra Mullins, unanimously allowed the QPS appeal and set aside the orders made by Judge Chowdhury.
The ruling means the initial sentence imposed by Ms Previtera was reinstated.
“In the circumstances of this case, where (Punchard) succeeded in the District Court on the appeal from the Magistrate’s sentence, where there was no basis for setting aside the Magistrate’s sentences which appropriately reflected the need for general deterrence to prevent other police officers acting in breach of trust in a way that may put a member of the community at risk, the fact that the respondent completed the community service ordered by Chowdhury DCJ does not cause such an injustice to the respondent to be an impediment to orders being made in this Court that will have the effect of reinstating the Magistrate’s sentence,” the court said in its 13-page decision.
The decision paves the way for QPS to pursue further disciplinary action against Punchard, including seeking termination of his employment.
Read the decision.