Mum faces prison for getting details of three people in witness protection
A Co Antrim mother has been warned she faces jail after pleading guilty to accessing information about three people on a PSNI witness protection programme.
A judge told Charlene Pierce he was releasing her on bail to allow her to make arrangements for the care of her children.
Pierce (34), of Harmin Park, Newtownbbey, will be sentenced on Friday after admitting to misconduct in a public office between June 25 and June 28, 2014.
At the time of the offences, Pierce was working for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as a claims builder, but had "wilfully misconducted herself" by unlawfully obtaining information about the identities and addresses of three people on the PSNI witness protection scheme.
As a result of her actions, the court heard that the three protected people had to be moved to new addresses at a cost of £35,000 to the public purse.
Ciaran Murphy QC, prosecuting, told Belfast Crown Court that Pierce was arrested on July 28, 2014 by detectives from the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch at her place of work in the Housing Executive's offices in Belfast's Great Victoria Street for an "unrelated matter".
He said she was employed as a claims builder for individuals seeking benefit in the Belfast area and had permission to do research on them, but she did not have permission to carry out research on individuals in the Greater Belfast area.
"She was not approved to research anyone other than claimants assigned to her," he added.
Judge Gordon Kerr QC was told that detectives found her handbag under her desk and inside was a document containing the "personal details of three individuals" who were known to detectives as persons currently on the PSNI witness protection programme.
Mr Murphy QC said that as a result of police finding the document, Pierce was re-arrested under the Terrorism Act.
The court was told that she accessed information on the Housing Executive's computer system on June 25 and June 26, 2014, relating to the names and addresses of three people who cannot be named by a court order to protect their identities.
A further examination showed traces of research having been carried out on the computer on June 27, 2014.
The prosecutor said police accessed her Facebook account which showed she had been in contact with an individual about the three persons on the PSNI witness protection scheme and this person was listed as a "friend".
"Her account showed posts between her and the other individual about the persons she had researched," he added.
Mr Murphy QC said Pierce's phone was examined and showed a phone number for the individual "she had been in contact with on Facebook".
The court heard she was interviewed on a total of 12 occasions by detectives but maintained a 'no comment' interview throughout, except to give police the pin code to her phone at her fourth interview.
"She made no comment about accessing the information on the computer while under duress," the prosecuting counsel told the court.
"The people she was accessing were protected persons under the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act.
"They were subsequently informed that their personal information had been compromised. They have been relocated to new addresses at a cost of £35,000."
The court heard that the three people on the witness programme had been "put at risk by the actions of this defendant which was a matter of a grave concern and which had been an affront to the administration of justice".
Terry McDonald QC, defending, told the court that "it was quite wrong to access this information and it was a forbidden act".
He added that Pierce had "effectively made herself unemployable in the public service and there will be no relaxation of that in the long term or in the future, if at all".
Mr McDonald said Pierce was a mother of several children but had no partner to help her to look after them and was currently earning a living to support her family at a fast food outlet.
The defence QC told Judge Kerr QC: "The fact of the matter is she tasted the forbidden fruit and the consequences for her are very, very severe."
But he urged the court not to send her to prison immediately, saying there were "mitigatory factors to avoid such a consequence and I can put the matter no higher than that".
Judge Kerr QC said he wanted time to consider a number of authorities on similar cases and told Pierce he would sentence her on Friday.