Police checkpoint after euthanasia meeting unlawful - watchdogs

Police broke the law when they set up a breath-testing checkpoint and collected information to identify attendees of a euthanasia meeting, authorities have found.

After a pro-euthanasia group Exit International meeting in Lower Hutt in October 2016, police stopped vehicles at a nearby checkpoint to collect the names and addresses of attendees.

An investigation from the Office of Privacy Commissioner (OPC) found the collection of information at the checkpoint breached the privacy act, and an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report found the checkpoint was unlawful.

IPCA authority chair Judge Colin Doherty said the establishment of the checkpoint was "an illegitimate use of police power that unlawfully restricted the right of citizens to freedom of movement".

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said the police checkpoint "unlawfully and unfairly collected personal information, harming some of the people affected".

Police had been monitoring the Exit International meeting as part of an investigation into the death of an elderly woman who'd ingested pentobarbitone - a drug used to euthanise animals.

During the meeting police overheard discussions about how to import pentobarbitone and ways to commit suicide, and became concerned people were at risk of harming themselves.

Officers decided to set up the checkpoint near the meeting to identify the attendees and later check on their welfare, without checking whether it was legal to do so.

Police have the power to stop motorists to enforce land transport legislation under the Land Transport Act, but the checkpoint was not for that purpose and therefore broke the law according to the IPCA.

In the several days following the meeting police visited some of the attendees to offer welfare and support - which some attendees found distressing.

No immediate risk to the attendees was identified during or after the meeting, but the IPCA found that the visits did not breach the Privacy Act.

It said the visits were well intentioned and in line with police operational policy, and there is no evidence the visits were intended or used for any investigative purpose.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said the visits from police made some of the attendees feel uncertain about their ability to speak freely, and they felt anxious about potential future visits.

"Police approached them after unlawfully collecting their information, and questioned them about a socially and politically sensitive subject. It is fair to say that the actions by the police officers caused those complainants harm," he said.

He acknowledged that police believed the attendees were at risk, and said apologies from police and an undertaking to delete the information collected at the checkpoint were appropriate resolutions.

Police have accepted the findings of the IPCA report, and Assistant Commissioner Bill Searle said: "We accept that establishing a vehicle checkpoint to identify meeting attendees was unlawful. However, our staff acted in order to protect life and did not intentionally break the law."

He said police recognise the welfare support visits had an impact on those visited, but were well intentioned and in line with operational policy.

"Police fully recognise the sensitivities about euthanasia, however we take no moral position about this issue," he said.

"Police have an obligation to enforce the law and a duty to protect life and safety, regardless of the situation. When this involves issues as sensitive as this, it is important that we are continually learning to ensure that we properly discharge our duties which ultimately enable us keep our communities safe."