Man awarded $20,000 in damages for being wrongfully imprisoned: reports

High Court finds police officer acted "in bad faith" in placing man in padded cell on basis of mental illness

Justice Philip Jeyaretnam found that the officer in question had acted in bad faith.
Justice Philip Jeyaretnam found that the police officer in question had acted in bad faith. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Following years of unsuccessful legal action against two police officers who were alleged to have abused their powers against him, a 48-year-old man was awarded $20,000 in damages on Thursday (19 January) for being wrongfully imprisoned.

The High Court ruled that Mah Kiat Seng, 48, was arrested in 2017, 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 Lawrence Tan Thiam Chin, who interacted with him at a police lock-up.

His various legal actions were previously dismissed, but in a turn of events on Thursday, the High Court found that Rosli had arrested Mah simply because the officer disliked him, not because he thought he was a danger because of a mental illness.

Justice Philip Jeyaretnam also found that Rosli had acted in bad faith in apprehending Mah, but Mah could not prove his claim of having been assaulted.

The court also expressed concern over a doctor's medical report on Mah, which appears to have been embellished to justify the arrest.

However, Mah failed in his second claim that Tan had assaulted him while he was in police custody.

IMH doctors concluded that Mr Mah had no mental disorders when he was discharged from IMH on 8 July 2017.
IMH doctors concluded that Mr Mah had no mental disorders when he was discharged from the psychiatric hospital on 8 July 2017. (PHOTO: Google Street View)

What happened on the day of the arrest?

On 7 July 2017, a woman called the police and alleged that Mah had touched her son's head at Suntec City.

Around 8pm, Rosli and his police partner located Mah near a stone bench and handcuffed him while two other officers assisted. Mah was locked up at the Central Police Division at around 10pm.

At 10.20 pm, Mah was examined by Dr Lin Hanjie, who referred him to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for treatment. He was transferred to a padded cell before being escorted to IMH at about 3 am the next day. He was then discharged from IMH at about 7pm on the same day.

Doctors at IMH concluded he did not have a mental disorder and that he should not be detained further.

Arguments made by Mah against police actions

Mah had argued that the officers who arrested him did not have the authority to apprehend him under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.

He also said they failed to take him to a medical practitioner right away, and he claimed to have been assaulted and traumatised physically and mentally during police custody.

Mah also complained that the police had negligently damaged his bag and mobile phone, and had prevented IMH staff from discharging him due to their control over his detention.

The court ruled that Rosli had made up the observation that Mah spat into a plastic bag as grounds for apprehending him under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.

The police officer initially claimed that Mah mumbled at times, but later retracted the assertion after viewing the body-worn camera footage.

Under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act, an officer has a duty to apprehend persons considered dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness so that they may be admitted to a psychiatric facility.

As part of this law, the police officer enforcing the rule is protected from civil or criminal liability "unless he has acted in bad faith or without reasonable care".

However, Justice Jeyaretnam found that the officer in the case had acted in bad faith.

Mah's assault claim against the other police officer Tan, who had handcuffed him at the police lock-up and escorted him to another cell for him to relieve himself, was dismissed by the judge.

How the damages was reached

Mah had filed a suit against the Attorney-General, representing the Singapore Police Force and the two officers, in 2020. He requested $4,620.95 as compensation, referring to what an individual in Malaysia was awarded.

The Attorney-General suggested that if his claims are made out, he was entitled to not more than $15,000 for false imprisonment and not more than $4,000 for assault and battery.

In awarding Mah $20,000, Justice Jeyaretnam considered that he was handcuffed and kept in a police cell rather than taken directly to IMH, which would have been less stressful.

The judge also considered the invasion of his privacy when his bag was searched, and his phone was accessed.

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