27 August 2013

Unenforced Warrants and Privacy

The Victorian Ombudsman's Office report on its Own motion investigation into unenforced warrants [PDF] finds that many of the state's offenders "are not being held accountable for their fines, there is little deterrent for failing to pay fines, and road safety is being compromised". The report features concerns regarding privacy.

The Ombudsman comments that in 2011-12 some 4.8 million infringement notices and 1.5 million warrants were issued in relation to offences committed in the state of Victoria relating to road safety and traffic, public order, industry regulation and environment protection. Road safety offences, such as speeding, drink driving and traffic light offences, were the highest category of offences.

The Infringement Management and Enforcement Services (IMES) - which includes the Sheriff's Office -  is responsible for enforcement of unpaid infringement notices and warrants but "is not keeping up with the number of warrants issued each year". As a result  "a large percentage of warrants are not enforced and expire without payment".
Since 2005, approximately two million warrants worth $886 million have been 'written-off' as a result of the Sheriff's Office being unable to effectively enforce the number of warrants issued. During the same period IMES has only cleared $185 million cash for warrants which includes cash collected by Sheriff's Officers. For each warrant finalised by the Sheriff's Office five more are issued. This has resulted in a pool of 3.5 million warrants, valued at more than $1.2 billion currently unexecuted and in a large percentage of cases, will not be executed before they expire after five years.
The report notes that IMES incapacity to respond to the large numbers of warrants is not a new issue, eg highlighted in reports in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2003-04, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
In 2006 the Victorian Government introduced the Infringements Act 2006 providing new sanctions for the Sheriff to deal with those who fail to pay fines or comply with court orders. A 2007 review of IMES Debt Management by PricewaterhouseCoopers noted that in 2000 IMES' gross debt was $280 million and by 2007 had increased to $640 million. Despite these reports and recommendations, the number of unenforced warrants and debt to the state 'written-off' continues to rise.
Factors contributing to the inability of the Sheriff's Office to enforce warrants include -
Limited resources - 172 Sheriff's Officers to enforce warrants. (If the number of unenforced warrants to be executed were shared equally amongst the Sheriff's Officers then this would average 20,400 each, an impossible task).
Out-dated Information Technology - the Sheriff's Office's IT system is 15 years old, has a deficiencies and is not compatible with a range of enforcement activities available to the Sheriff.
Unutilised Powers - Since 2006 the Sheriff's Office has had enforcement powers that it has not utilised, eg the garnisheeing of wages and charging and selling of land and assets. Despite having the power to make company directors liable for debts incurred by their companies since 2006, the Sheriff's Office has not used the power to any significant extent.
Problems with data sharing and reliability - the Sheriff's Office has relied heavily on address data held by VicRoads. "It was not able to record alternative address data it obtained for offenders in its own database nor would VicRoads, until my investigation, update its database based on information received from the Sheriff. There have been some issues with agencies, including VicRoads and the Victorian Electoral Commission, about sharing address details with the Sheriff. In response to my investigation both VicRoads and the Victorian Electoral Commission have said they are prepared to assist the Sheriff's Office with address data within the constraints of their legislation."
Poor enforcement strategies - IMES has no documented and systematic methodology for targeting, selecting and enforcing infringement warrants. Sheriff's Officers are driven by location and convenience rather than prioritising warrants. "There is neither guidance from supervisors nor any IMES policy."
In response the Ombudsman recommends that -
  • the Government consider implementing the Fines Reform program as a priority. 
  • the Department of Justice provide more detailed annual reporting regarding warrants that are outstanding, issued, finalised, cleared and expired. 
  • IMES seek funding for additional Sheriff's Officers.
  • IMES introduce a comprehensive operating methodology for actioning warrants across all regions.
  • IMES utilise all legislative sanctions available to it in appropriate cases.
  • IMES revisit and extend its data matching activities.
The discussion of data sharing is of particular interest to privacy scholars and practitioners. The report states that -
Most warrants relate to traffic infringements. The addresses on these warrants are taken from VicRoads’ database at the time of the infringement.
Sheriff’s Officers do not routinely check warrant addresses with VicRoads before attending an address. VicRoads also charges IMES a fee of 16 cents for each address check it conducts. IMES stated that whether Sheriff’s Officers conduct the checks depends on operational requirements in each region and that some officers perform the checks as a matter of course.
Motor vehicle licence holders are required by legislation to update their details with VicRoads within 14 days of a change of address. VicRoads will only change its address data when information is provided by a licence holder. VicRoads assumes addresses are correct where correspondence it sends out is not returned. At times, a Sheriff’s Officer may become aware of a current address for an offender, which is different to that held by VicRoads. However, VicRoads will not update its database with information provided by Sheriff’s Officers because it is concerned that to do so would place the ‘deemed service’ of VicRoads’ notices at risk. VicRoads told my officers that in such situations, it is concerned about the prospect of court action by licence holders.
The Department of Justice said: Any updates made to the VicRoads database by VicRoads, does not impact on the Deemed service provisions under the Infringements Act 2006.
VicRoads also does not take action against licence holders who fail to update address records because this could lead to ‘unintended consequences’. For instance, action against a person who has simply forgotten. 
VicRoads said that as the Sheriff is able to direct VicRoads to suspend or cancel a licence when an offender fails to pay warrants, VicRoads prefers this method of targeting individual offenders rather than targeting the entire driving population.
In response to my draft report, Mr Facey said: IMES acknowledges that there are some issues surrounding addresses sourced from VicRoads, as the offender in question has failed to update their address with VicRoads despite the requirement to do so within 14 days of moving. Sheriff’s Officers will often conduct their own checks prior to visiting an address, to ascertain if the address in VIMS is current. In addition, the new IME system will allow multiple addresses to be recorded for the first time, ensuring that Sheriff’s Officers will have the greatest chance of locating offenders with outstanding warrants.
In response to my draft report, VicRoads:
  • said it should take all reasonable steps to make its address records as accurate as possible 
  • agreed that the Sheriff’s Office may become aware of information not provided to VicRoads and there is merit in VicRoads confirming updated address information from agencies such as the Sheriff’s Office 
  • said in the future VicRoads will write to clients at both the address on record and the address advised to it by the Sheriff’s Office requesting that the client confirm the correct address 
  • noted that where clients fail to comply under the Road Safety (Drivers) Regulations VicRoads may require the client to provide evidence of their address and where appropriate will suspend the client’s licence or permit said in relation to vehicles, VicRoads may require evidence of changes to the residential address of the vehicle’s registered operator and any other addresses for the service of notices and will suspend the registration of a vehicle where this information is not provided 
  • said it will maintain contact with the Sheriff’s Office to assess the impact of this process change.
In commenting on "Lack of cooperation between agencies on information sharing" the report states - 
 The 2007 PriceWaterhouseCooper’s review said IMES needed access to other information sources to confirm offenders’ details and suggested access to the Victorian Electoral Roll, Housing Commission and Retail Tenancy data. The review suggested that IMES liaise with the government to resolve any barriers of privacy or cost.
IMES said that these and other agencies refused to provide address data on the basis of privacy concerns.
However, there appears to be no legal basis for such refusals. The Information Privacy Act 2000 (the Privacy Act) protects ‘personal information’ including addresses. However, the right to privacy under the Privacy Act is not absolute and will give way to countervailing public interests including proper administration and the enforcement of laws.
This means that under the Privacy Act an agency may disclose an address if it reasonably believes that the use or disclosure is necessary for the purposes of a law enforcement agency to detect, investigate, prosecute or punish criminal offences or breaches of law imposing penalties or sanctions. IMES is one such law enforcement agency.
IMES also has express power to require the production of information under warrants authorised by courts. The Infringements Act 2006 provides the Sheriff with the power to request information to assist in warrant enforcement and the Sheriff’s Act gives Sheriff’s Officers the power to require certain information. Agencies are generally only exempt from providing information to the Sheriff’s Office relating to a warrant where exceptional circumstances apply.
In response to my draft report, Mr Warwick Gately AM, the Victorian Electoral Commissioner said:
… in 2009, IMES worked with the VEC in relation to providing IMES with access to the personal details of people enrolled on the register of electors. Further, that an initial protocol was proposed by IMES with respect to elector data, which ultimately was not agreed to by the VEC. I confirm that the VEC informed IMES of its decision that the information would not be disclosed under the proposed protocol and that the preferred method for the VEC was for the provision of information to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. … I am very open to further reviewing and developing the protocol with IMES whereby the register of electors is accessed initially by VEC officers on a case by case basis to confirm or update address details against particular individuals as opposed to the continuous provision of the State electoral roll to an agency over which I cannot exercise control.
In response to my draft report, Mr Facey said:
IMES has made a number of attempts to work with other agencies to have access to current address information. For a number of reasons, these efforts have largely been unsuccessful. … IMES is continuing to look at ways to obtain the best address information, such as entering into arrangements with telecommunication companies.