SINGAPORE: A man has been awarded S$20,000 in damages for being wrongly imprisoned, after years of unsuccessfully seeking legal recourse against two police officers whom he alleged to have abused their powers against him.
Mr Mah Kiat Seng was apprehended and imprisoned in 2017 for less than a day, after a woman called the police claiming he touched her son’s head.
He later sued the Attorney-General, representing the Singapore Police Force, along with two police officers: Staff Sergeant Mohamed Rosli Mohamed, who took him into custody; and Staff Sergeant Tan Thiam Chin Lawrence, who interacted with Mr Mah at a police lock-up.
Mr Mah’s various legal actions were previously dismissed.
But in a turn of events, the High Court found in a judgment on Thursday (Jan 19) that SSgt Rosli arrested Mr Mah because he disliked him – not because he genuinely believed Mr Mah was a danger because of a mental disorder.
Justice Philip Jeyaretnam found that SSgt Rosli had acted in bad faith in apprehending Mr Mah, but that Mr Mah could not prove his claim of having been assaulted.
The court also expressed “concern” over a doctor’s medical report on Mr Mah, that appears to have been embellished to justify the arrest.
THE DAY OF THE ARREST
On Jul 7, 2017, a woman called the police from Suntec City, saying a Chinese man had touched her son’s head.
SSgt Rosli and his partner were dispatched to the scene, where they interviewed the woman.
The woman claimed the man looked as though he was going to pull her son’s hair. She said she shouted at him and he ran away.
A short while later, the two police officers located Mr Mah near a stone bench outside Suntec City and interviewed him.
SSgt Rosli came to the conclusion that Mr Mah was mentally disordered and posed a danger to himself or other people.
He and his partner, along with two other police officers who came to help, apprehended Mr Mah under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act and handcuffed him.
Mr Mah was escorted to Central Division’s Regional Lock-Up in a police car, and a search was done of his body and belongings.
He was detained in a cell at about 10pm and examined by a doctor at about 10.20pm. After being referred to the Institute of Mental Health for treatment, he was moved to a padded cell.
At about 3am, Mr Mah was escorted to IMH, where a doctor attended to him at about 5am. The doctor was given a referral memorandum written by an investigating police officer, which stated that Mr Mah was seen to have pulled the hair of a four-year-old boy.
At about 5.45am, the IMH doctor ordered that Mr Mah be detained for further observation and assessment. She was concerned that he posed a risk of harm to minors, and suspected that he suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder.
But after observing Mr Mah for a time, doctors concluded he was not suffering from a mental disorder and that he should not be detained further.
He was discharged from IMH at about 7pm that day.
MR MAH’S CASE
Mr Mah argued that the police officers had no authority to apprehend him under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.
They also failed to fulfil their duty to take him to a medical practitioner right away, he said.
He claimed to have been assaulted while in police custody, and to have suffered physical and mental trauma.
He also said his bag and mobile phone were negligently damaged by the police, and argued that the police officers had control over his detention at IMH – and had prevented IMH staff from discharging him.
In its opening statement, the AG said police officers were not medical professionals and would simply 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 or brought to a medical professional.
It later added, though, that a police officer’s belief that a person is dangerous to himself or others – because of a mental disorder – “must be founded on reasonable grounds”.
A person who commits acts under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act is protected from civil or criminal proceedings unless “he has acted in bad faith or without reasonable care”, said the AG.
The AG consistently maintained that SSgt Rosli apprehended Mr Mah in good faith, that no damage was done to his belongings and that Mr Mah was taken to a medical practitioner without delay.
But Mr Mah said the police should have informed him of the grounds of his arrest as soon as he was apprehended.
The AG accepted this, but said it was only necessary to do so as soon as reasonably practicable, rather than immediately.
The AG also said a police officer need not receive a formal report that the person being apprehended was suffering from a medical disorder.
Instead, the court should consider whether the apprehending police officer “honestly” believed the person apprehended was dangerous to himself or others, and thereafter assess whether the police officer had reasonable grounds for his belief.
SSgt Rosli honestly believed Mr Mah was dangerous because of a mental disorder, the AG argued.
THE JUDGE’S FINDINGS
SSgt Rosli had been told by the woman who made the police report that Mr Mah did not look mentally well.
When interviewing Mr Mah, SSgt Rosli assessed that he was agitated, fidgety, defensive and incoherent – and this was supported by bodyworn camera footage, the AG said.
In an affidavit in September 2017, SSgt Rosli said Mr Mah was “mumbling to himself at times”.
But he later withdrew this assertion. During SSgt Rosli’s radio call to his superiors, he did not say that Mr Mah was “mumbling to himself”.
“Rosli’s transcribed description given to his superiors of Mah’s behaviour is brief to the point of inarticulacy, saying only ‘he a bit … got … a bit … don’t know la … this guy’,” said Justice Jeyaretnam.
The judge said being agitated, defensive or inconsistent might well be the response of a person of perfectly sound mind who is being questioned by police.
“It was the element of mumbling to himself that indicated to persons untrained in psychiatric disorder that Mah might be suffering from a mental disorder,” said Justice Jeyaretnam.
SSgt Rosli had also claimed that Mr Mah spat into a plastic bag. But this was not captured on bodyworn camera footage, nor was any plastic bag containing spit found later, said the judge.
SSgt Rosli also claimed that Mr Mah had described himself as “OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder), a claim Mr Mah denied.
Justice Jeyaretnam found that no such description was captured on camera footage. He accepted Mr 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,” said the judge.
“I find that Mah’s behaviour as shown in the bodyworn camera footage did not suggest that he was dangerous to others, and as far as soundness of mind is concerned only showed a degree of eccentricity falling far short of appearing mentally disordered,” he said.
He found that SSgt Rosli knew that he had no power to arrest Mr Mah for the matter complained of because it was not an arrestable offence. The police officer also took a dislike to Mr 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,” said the judge.
“PECULARITIES” OF DOCTOR’S REPORT
Justice Jeyaretnam also remarked on the “peculiarities” of a medical report by a doctor who examined Mr Mah while in lock-up, saying it might have been embellished to justify Mr Mah’s apprehension.
Mr Mah was examined by Dr Lin Hanjie of Healthway Medical Group after his apprehension.
Based on a medical report dated September 2017, more than two months after seeing Mr Mah, Dr Lin wrote that Mr Mah did not seem to be making sense in his conversation and was constantly talking to himself.
No such observation was found in his notes made on Jul 7, 2017, said the judge. CCTV footage also did not support the assertion that Mr Mah was talking to himself.
Although there is no sound in the footage, Mr Mah appeared to be looking at the doctor and conversing with him throughout.
Dr Lin also omitted from his report that Mr Mah had complained to him of pain in his abdomen – Mr Mah had claimed to have been assaulted by the police.
Instead, Dr Lin wrote in his report that Mr Mah had no other complaints.
Yet CCTV footage showed Mr Mah speaking to Dr Lin about his abdomen, and the doctor could be seen examining it.
Dr Lin also described Mr Mah in his report as being able to walk “with a normal gait”, when footage showed that Mr Mah was supported throughout by two police officers.
The duration of Dr Lin’s examination was also given as 11 minutes when Mr Mah was in the consultation room for just over three minutes.
Justice Jeyaretnam said the question of Dr Lin’s good faith was not strictly material to the outcome of the case, but that there was concern that the doctor might have embellished his medical report to justify Mr Mah’s apprehension by the police.
“The scheme of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act depends on the integrity of the medical practitioner just as much as it depends on the integrity of the apprehending officer,” said the judge.
He also dismissed Mr Mah’s allegations of having been assaulted, and his property damaged, based on evidence including CCTV footage.
Mr Mah had sought S$4,620.95 in damages. He came up with the sum by referring to an award of compensation given to a person who was wrongly arrested four times in Malaysia.
The AG suggested general damages of not more than S$15,000 for the false imprisonment claim, not more than S$4,000 for his claims of assault and battery and nominal damages of S$1 for each of his other claims.
The judge awarded Mr Mah general damages of S$20,000 for false imprisonment. He gave a figure higher than what the AG put forward, as he took into account that Mr Mah was handcuffed and kept in a police cell rather than being taken directly to IMH.
If he had been taken to IMH directly, it would have been less stressful for him, said the judge.
He also took into account minor abrasions caused during the apprehension, marks caused by handcuffs and the invasion of Mr Mah’s privacy when his bag was searched and mobile phone accessed.
“The Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act places a duty on police officers to apprehend persons believed to be a danger to themselves or others by reason of mental disorder,” said the judge.
“It is an important duty that safeguards the public interest, and particularly public safety. It depends on police officers doing their duty in good faith.”
He said latitude must be given to police officers who are not medically trained and have to fulfil their duty under operational conditions.
Still, there was an individual lapse by SSgt Rosli that resulted in Mr Mah being falsely imprisoned – albeit for less than a day, said the judge.
He ordered parties to file submissions on costs.
CNA has contacted the Singapore Medical Council for more information on SSgt Rosli and Dr Lin.
In response to CNA’s queries, the police said that they, along with the Attorney-General’s Chambers, “are studying the judgment delivered” before deciding on the next course of action.