Sun, Feb 03, 2008
The Straits Times
Will police act if you’re punched? It’s not so simple
MAN gets punched in the mouth, loses a tooth or two and requires stitches on a split lip.
The police are called in. But when they come, all they do is take down the particulars of both parties and let the assailant go.
The disgruntled victim is left wondering: ‘Why aren’t the police arresting my attacker?’
Such a scenario has become familiar in recent years, judging from press reports and letters to the Forum page of The Straits Times. Members of the public are left scratching their heads as to why the police do not seem to be doing their duty of protecting the people.
From a businessman who was punched by an American sailor in Wheelock Place to a bust-up over a cat between two men in the void deck of a Bishan flat to a man who had four teeth knocked off by a stranger – every time something like that happens, the public picks on the seeming police inaction.
The crux of the issue lies in the distinction made between seizable and non-seizable offences under the law.
If a crime is considered under the Criminal Procedure Code to be ‘seizable’, the police can arrest the suspect immediately without needing a warrant.
But if it’s not, then it is up to the victim to seek his own redress. He can complain to a magistrate who can then instruct the police to investigate, take up a private prosecution, or file a civil suit for damages.
A senior police officer of the rank of assistant superintendent or above can also authorise a full investigation into a non-seizable offence but without the powers of arrest.
The list of seizable and non-seizable offences has been in place since Singapore’s laws were set after independence and has generally remained unchanged.
This list basically reflects which crimes the State deems as the more serious ones which require immediate police attention, such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and theft.
For the not so serious ones such as perjury, mischief and cheating, the police have no power to arrest, or even investigate, unless a magistrate orders it.
While very few would dispute the classification of most of these crimes, the most problematic area lies in the distinction between voluntarily causing hurt (a non-seizable offence) and voluntarily causing grievous hurt (which is seizable).
The layman finds it hard to understand why someone who punches another person is not immediately taken into custody. To most, this is an assault serious enough to warrant a more appropriate response.
Criminal lawyer Anand Nalachandran says: ‘Victims of physical violence assume the police will take action when a criminal offence has been committed and would not expect the police to direct them to make a magistrate’s complaint instead.’
Criminal law lecturer Michael Hor says the problem is due to a ‘mismatch of expectations’ between the police and the public on how such cases should be handled.
But the hands of the police are tied by the law and how it distinguishes a ‘simple’ hurt case from one which is ‘grievous’.
The law states that for an injury to be ‘grievous’, it has to meet one of 10 criteria set out in the Penal Code.
The criteria include permanent loss of sight or hearing, castration, fracture and permanent loss of limb or joint.
There is also one where the classification of grievous hurt hinges on whether the victim is hurt badly enough to feel pain and cannot go about his normal activities for 20 days or more.
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim suggested in Parliament recently that the Penal Code be changed to widen the scope of what degree of bodily harm is considered ‘grievous’. She said: ‘Are we setting too high a tolerance for violence?’
Criminal lawyers suggested that if the list of criteria is widened, then conditions such as ‘if blood is spilt’, ‘if a tooth is dislodged’ or ‘if swelling occurs’ should be included.
After the Penal Code was revised last year, the definition of grievous hurt was expanded to include death and non-consensual penetration of the vagina or anus.
But having a long list of criteria might make it hard for a police officer on the ground to determine when a case should be deemed grievous or not.
Professor Hor said tweaking the meaning of ‘grievous’ could prove to be difficult. ‘No matter what formula is used, some non-trivial case will slip through.’
Another suggestion is to classify simple hurt as a seizable offence.
Ms Lim said the public found the inability of the police to act in simple hurt cases rather ‘non-sensible’, and continuing to keep things the way they are would ‘undermine the public sense of safety’.
She gave an example: If she scratched someone’s car, she could be arrested on the spot for vandalism; but if she punched someone, causing a nose bleed, she could walk away.
But Singapore Management University law lecturer S. Chandra Mohan said it was ‘not in the public interest’ to subject all people who have been accused of committing a minor offence to the process of being arrested, detained and bailed out.
‘That sort of ready interference with the liberty of a citizen, upon a mere allegation of the commission of a non-seizable or minor offence, would be intolerable in Singapore,’ he said.
Prof Hor also felt such ‘drastic steps’ of making simple hurt a seizable offence were not necessary.
‘The consequence may well be that valuable resources might have to be spent on relatively trivial offences against the good judgment of the police, at the expense of proper investigation of the more serious offences,’ he said.
Police received 8,288 reports of causing simple hurt last year and investigated about 20 per cent of these.
Going by these figures, if causing simple hurt became a seizable offence, the police would have an extra work load of about 23 cases a day.
On the other hand, grievous hurt cases numbered a much more manageable 106 last year and 85 in 2006 – about one case every three or four days.
Prof Hor said: ‘We could include simple hurt in the list of seizable offences – but that would mean that every slap or punch will have to be investigated, so long as it causes some pain, no matter how slight.’
Many simple hurt cases include situations such as parents slapping children, family disputes and quarrels getting out of hand. Most are resolved quickly without the need for the police to intervene or press charges.
Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee stressed in Parliament in response to Ms Lim that the police view such cases seriously, pointing to changes to the Penal Code which will increase the maximum jail term for simple hurt cases from one year to two.
Associate Professor Ho said the police are not deaf to the public’s concerns and have acted in cases of simple hurt when the victims were young children, the elderly, mentally challenged people or those who were performing public service such as bus drivers and carpark attendants.
But for now, the status quo will remain.
The police have made it easier for victims to lodge a magistrate’s complaint by supplying them with the necessary forms and also giving them a contact to call at the police station, if they need more help.
Prof Hor suggests setting up an independent panel to review cases where the police have decided not to investigate an assault.
‘This will afford aggrieved victims a flexible, case-by-case means of requesting that a decision of non-prosecution be revisited.’
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