Man awarded S$20,000 in damages after suing S'pore police for unlawful arrest

His claim of physical trauma was dismissed.

Matthias Ang | January 20, 2023, 07:22 PM

A man has been awarded S$20,000 in damages by the High Court for false imprisonment after he sued the Singapore Police Force.

Mah Kiat Seng was arrested outside Suntec City in 2017.

This happened after a woman called the police, claiming that Mah had touched her son's head, according to a judgment by Justice Philip Jeyaretnam.

In 2020, he sued the Attorney-General (AG) representing the police, and two police officers.

These were Mohamed Rosli bin Mohamed, who took him into custody, and Tan Thiam Chin Lawrence, who interacted with him while he was locked up,

Mah's case was that he had been falsely arrested, assaulted, and suffered physical and mental trauma.

However, his previous legal action was dismissed.

Mah also claimed damages of S$4,620.95, by referencing the compensation amount awarded to an individual who was wrongly arrested on four occasions in Malaysia.

What happened during the arrest?

On Jul. 7, 2017, a woman called the police, alleging that Mah had touched her son's head.

Two police officers — Rosli and his partner Teo Sean — were dispatched to the incident location at Suntec City where they spoke to the woman at 7.59pm.

The woman further claimed that Mah looked as though he looked like he was going to pull the hair of her son, and that he ran away when she shouted at him.

Teo and Rosli found Mah a few minutes later, at 8.05pm, near a stone bench outside Suntec City and spoke to him.

In the course of doing so, Rosli came to an apparent conclusion that Mah was mentally disordered and posed a danger to himself and others, and apprehended  Mah under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.

Mah was handcuffed and escorted to the Central Police Division's Regional Lock-Up in a police car.

A search was conducted on Mah's body and belongings, and Mah was detained in a cell at about 10pm.

He was examined by Lin Hanjie, a doctor who referred Mah to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for treatment.

Mah was then transferred to a padded cell. At about 3am on Jul. 8, 2017, he was escorted to IMH where he was attended to by a doctor at 5am.

The doctor was given a referral memorandum written by an investigating police officer which stated that Mah was "seen to have pulled the hair of a [four-year] old boy at Suntec City".

The doctor subsequently made an order at about 5.43am that Mah be detained for further observation and assessment out of concern that he posed a risk of harm to minors.

She also suspected that he suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

He was discharged from IMH at about 7pm on the same day.

What is Mah's case against the police?

Mah argued that the police officers did not have authority to apprehend him under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act, and that they breached their duty in failing to take him without delay to a medical practitioner.

Mah also alleged that he was assaulted while in police custody and suffered physical and mental trauma.

He further claimed that his personal property, namely his bag and mobile phone, were negligently damaged by the police, and added that the police officers had control over his detention at IMH and prevented the IMH staff from discharging him.

What is the police's case?

In its opening statement, the AG contended that as police officers are not medical professionals, they will have to use their "best judgment" in the circumstances of each case to determine if a person must be arrested under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act and brought to a medical professional.

The judgement further noted that that AG adopted a "qualitatively different position" in its supplemental opening statement however, by stating that a police officer’s belief that a person is dangerous to himself or other persons due to mental disorder “must be founded on reasonable grounds".

The AG also consistently maintained that Rosli apprehended Mah "good faith", and that the police had taken Mah to a medical practitioner without delay, did not physically abuse him or damage his personal property, and neither had control over his detention at IMH nor prevented IMH staff from discharging him.

The points of contention

Being informed about basis of arrest

Mah further contended that the police ought to have informed him of the grounds of his arrest as soon as he was apprehended.

However, this need only be done as soon as "reasonably practicable" rather than immediately, said the judge.

The judge also noted that Mah had been informed about the basis of his arrest twice: first in the police car from Suntec City to the Regional Lock-Up and after arriving there.

Mah's conduct

Mah also suggested that he was arrested by Rosli because of personal prejudice against him and that the officer became annoyed with him because he refused to hand his identity card over directly, placing it on the bench instead.

Meanwhile, the AG said Rosli’s belief that Mah was dangerous to other persons was founded on reasonable grounds. Mah was reported to have violated the bodily integrity of a stranger’s four-year-old child and Rosli personally observed Mah’s erratic behaviour and inconsistent responses.

On this point, the judge questioned how it came to be that Rosli claimed in his affidavit dated Sep. 13, 2017, that Mah was "mumbling to himself at times", an assertion that he later withdrew.

Rosli did not say that Mah was “mumbling to himself” during his radio call to his superiors.

The judge also noted that Rosli's transcribed description of Mah given to his superiors of his behaviour is brief "to the point of inarticulacy", as it only says, "he a bit seven also … got … a bit … don’t know la … this guy".

The judge added, "Being agitated, defensive or inconsistent may well be the responses of a person of perfectly sound mind who is questioned by the police."

The judge also found that Rosli had embellished his account by claiming that Mah had spat into a plastic bag.

However, this was not captured on body-worn camera footage, nor was any plastic bag containing spit found later.

In addition, Rosli further claimed that Mah had described himself as "OCD" (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

However, Mah denied doing so.

The judge pointed out that no such description was capture on camera footage and accepted Mah's account.

"I conclude that Rosli did not have an honest belief that Mah was a danger to other persons by reason of mental disorder," he wrote.

The judge added:

"I find on a balance of probabilities that Rosli, knowing that he had no power to arrest Mah for the matter complained of because it was not an arrestable offence, took a dislike to Mah for his apparently disrespectful conduct, including not handing his identity card directly to him. This is what motivated him to come up with the assertions that Mah was mumbling to himself and spat into a plastic bag."

Mah's claim of physical trauma dismissed

The judge also dismissed Mah's claim of physical trauma.

He highlighted that camera footage did not support Mah's claim of being punched in the abdomen by the officers who arrested him.

Mah also claimed that his wrist and arms were intentionally injured by Tan while he was being escorted to the padded cell.

Here, the judge added that CCTV footage does not support Mah’s allegations.

He wrote, "Mah simply experienced discomfort and marking of his skin from the ordinary manner in which handcuffs are used. I specifically find that Tan did not intentionally injure Mah while escorting him."

In awarding Mah S$20,000 in damages for false imprisonment, Jeyaretnam said he took into account the fact that Mah was handcuffed and kept in a police cell instead of being taken directly to IMH, which would have been less stressful for him than what took place.

Top photo by Mothership