The Independent Police Conduct Authority has found that police, while targeting the owners of a motel business in Warkworth, went beyond the bounds of a legitimate police intelligence operation.
Their actions included two breaches of privacy, an unlawful search, and inappropriate involvement in tenancy and building compliance issues.
The motel business owners complained to the authority after learning that police had disclosed personal information, including photographs taken during a police search at their motel, to their landlord in December 2016.
The search lead to the arrests of one of the motel business owners and another person for drug-related offending. The owners were subsequently told in early 2017 that their lease would be cancelled. They sold their business at a substantial loss.
The authority determined that parts of the police search were unlawful, as they did not have reasonable grounds to suspect there was evidential material in some areas where they searched.
Following the search, a police officer called and emailed the landlord, and sent photographs taken during the search of private areas of the motel. The photographs wrongly implied that public areas of the motel complex were being kept in poor condition. The officer then disclosed further personal information, with the intention of convincing the landlord to remove the motel business owners from their tenancy.
The authority found that most of these disclosures were unjustified. It also found that the police officer who was responsible for the wrongful release of personal information intentionally misled one of the complainants about who released the information, and subsequently lied to fellow officers during the police investigation into the matter.
“While police were justified in addressing what they perceived to be a problem in the community, the actions they took were an abuse of police power that had significant consequences for the individuals involved”, said the Chair of the Authority, Judge Doherty.
However, Waitemata District Commander Superintendent Naila Hassan says the officer involved was acting with good intent and trying to do the right thing regarding criminal activity at the premise. Police disputed that the police officer lied.
“As the IPCA notes, police were justified in addressing a known issue with criminal activity at that location,” she says.
“While some of the information released to the landlord was ill-advised, the officer believed they were acting in the best interests of the Warkworth community.
“Police considered this matter as an employment investigation into the officer concerned.
“The investigation identified lessons to be learned and the officer was spoken to about their decision-making in regards to the release of information.”
Mandatory training will soon be delivered to all police staff so they are aware of new reporting obligations under the revised Privacy Act (2020), which comes into effect on December 1.