A POLICE officer has been cleared of illegally obtaining personal data about a colleague he believed may be a witness against him in a misconduct probe.
Alan Heap was acquitted at Inverness Sheriff Court in April 2010 of using excessive force during an arrest – but was then he would be the subject of a misconduct investigation by the force.
Heap found himself in the dock again at Dingwall Sheriff Court this week facing allegations he illegally obtained personal data about PC Susan Walker – one of three officers who gave evidence in the case against him heard at Inverness.
Heap (43) denied illegally obtaining data on PC Walker from the force’s incident recording system on May 25 and 26, 2010 at the Old Police House Fortrose and on May 25 and June 1 sending the information to Constable Graham Ednie of the Police Federation.
Defence solicitor David Hunter told Sheriff Margaret Neilson at close of evidence under the terms of Data Protection Act legislation if she believed Heap acted in the belief that what he was doing was acceptable he must be acquitted.
The sheriff, after adjourning for 15 minutes, returned not guilty verdicts. Heap, the trial heard, could still face disciplinary action over his use the system.
The two-day trial heard he had looked at more than 130 incidents allocated to Constable Walker while he was working with a team investigating a multi-million fraud by Scottish fishermen.
Superintendent Graeme Murdoch of Northern Constabulary told the trial officers were only meant to look at the Impact incident system for "operational reasons".
The trial was told Impact records all incidents in the force area and is accessible to most officers and many civilian support staff.
Giving evidence on Friday, Heap told Sheriff Neilson after the court case in Inverness he was told he would be facing an internal misconduct hearing and was taken of his normal duties and assigned to a police house at Fortrose where he was responsible for tracking 7,000 documents used for the "black fish" investigation.
He said his work had been completed in the black fish inquiry and he was sitting around for months doing nothing and his health was affected. He was signed off by his doctor and his wife too was treated for stress and had been signed off work.
He didn’t deny accessing the files and forwarding incident numbers. The Impact system he said was used every day of his service.
"As far as I was aware I was permitted to access it as were all officers and some support staff.
"The caretaker has access to Impact but he doesn’t need it for operational purposes."
The officer said he learned that civilian staff were being investigated for their use of the system and in his e-mail to PC Ednie on the June 1, 2010, he acknowledged he maybe should not be using it and didn’t enter Impact again.
Depute Fiscal Roderick Urquhart asked if he was simply on a "fishing exercise" to find evidence to discredit PC Walker.
Heap told the fiscal the force carried out a "fishing exercise" by checking his e-mails. He felt he had legitimate reason because his misconduct case was a police matter.
In his final submission, Mr Urquhart said the issue was whether there was a belief on Heap’s part that what he was doing was wrong. And Mr Urquhart said from the e-mails sent to PC Ednie he believed he was aware what he was doing was wrong.
Mr Hunter said Heap acted in the reasonable belief that he would have the consent of the controller of the system, The Chief Constable. He added PC Ednie had two e-mail accounts and if Heap sent it to his Northern Constabulary account it would have been forwarded anyway to his Police Federation e-mail anyway.
"The fact is he is a serving police officer. It’s no different to one officer handing a piece of paper to another.
"My position is he was entitled to use it to make inquiries.
"If he’s wrong he’s wrong but one wonders what Northern Constabulary can do to prevent that. If the system is insecure that’s something that should be looked at."