13 Jun 2016

Aliases still an issue after Smith inquiry

5:34 pm on 13 June 2016

Police are under pressure to explain how they failed to match up the aliases of a well-known fraudster who stole millions from Work and Income.

Lisa Donnelly was sentenced in the Auckland District Court last week for stealing $36,000 from a 92-year-old woman she was supposed to be caring for.

Donnelly, who also uses the name Lisa Clement, has 41 previous convictions, many for dishonesty including stealing almost $2 million from her employer, Work and Income, in the early 2000s.

The case comes in the wake of an official inquiry into the escape of Phillip John Smith, who fled to Brazil in November 2014 while on temporary release from Springhill Prison in Waikato.

Phillip John Smith

Phillip John Smith Photo: RNZ

An official inquiry into Smith's escape, released last year, found shortcomings in various agencies' systems and processes.

It made a number of recommendations, including requiring police to establish an official identity for all people charged with an offence, and said the same requirement should apply to prosecutions by any agency.

It also suggested police develop systems to ensure the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages notified justice agencies and the New Zealand Transport Agency of all name changes for those with serious convictions.

But in Donnelly's case, her lawyer, Adam Couchman, said it was clear police hadn't matched his client's aliases.

"Within the justice system offenders are given a PRN number, a personal identifier, and when you punch that number into the system everything in relation to you and the criminal justice system comes up.

"People can have different aliases, but those aliases are connected back to the PRN. In theory if you punch in the PRN number it should come up with every conviction listed under all of that person's aliases, if it's all connected to the same PRN."

He said, whilst the probation service had made the connection, the police's system didn't link the PRNs of Donnelly and Clement.

Mr Couchman said during the sentencing it became clear Judge Christopher Field wasn't aware of his client's full criminal history.

He sought a copy of the probation report, before asking for the case to be recalled.

After consideration, the judge decided the new information would only amount to "tinkering".

Mr Couchman said even if the previous convictions had been considered, at most it would have added a month to his client's sentence.

He said when he became aware the judge didn't have the full facts, it presented an ethical dilemma.

"As an officer of the court I had a conflict, because on the one hand it's not my role or job to put my client's convictions before the court.

"But equally, as an officer of the court, it's my job to ensure that the court is not misled in terms of how it proceeds," he said.

Donnelly was sentenced to seven months' home detention, 150 hours' community work and ordered to repay her victim $24,000.

Police respond

While police have said they are considering an appeal, Mr Couchman questioned whether there were sufficient grounds.

"We're really dealing with the issue of, 'If those convictions had been considered - which the judge did in fact consider - the issue is would they have resulted in a sentence that would have been outside the term eligible for home detention, or would those convictions have made a term of home detention inappropriate'."

He said even if full weight was given to the previous convictions, it wouldn't put the final sentence outside the scope for home detention.

Mr Couchman said that left one final issue - was a sentence of home detention inappropriate?

He said the probation service - which had a full list of previous convictions - concluded home detention was appropriate and recommended it, which was a recommendation that the judge had adopted.

In a brief statement, police said they strived to get the best results for their victims and used fingerprints, photographs and DNA to establish whether someone had an alias.

They would be reviewing why they were unaware of this alias but couldn't comment further because of the possibility of an appeal.

Labour police spokesperson Stuart Nash blamed cost-cutting for the failure to match the names.

He said data matching was one of many IT projects the police had on the go but didn't have the resources for.

"In the 2014/15 financial year, of about 60 projects that were either completed or scheduled for competition, about 40 percent of those are running over six months late," he said.'

Police Minister Judith Collins said police were working with other agencies to collect and share information about an offender's identity, including the use of biometrics.

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