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Don't break laws while making citizen's arrest: Lawyers

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Lawyers say the public allowed to make arrests if they see crimes being committed but must not break any laws while doing so

Members of the public can make a citizen's arrest if they see a crime being committed but they must not break any laws in the process, said lawyers.

Their comments come after an incident on Nov 1 when a 46-year-old man died after being subdued by five passers-by, one of whom said he had seen the man taking upskirt videos of a woman at Little India MRT station.

Police are investigating the case, which has been classified as an unnatural death.

The Penal Code allows a private citizen to carry out an arrest if he sees a person committing an arrestable, non-bailable offence, such as kidnapping, theft or rape.

But the Criminal Procedure Code classifies insulting a woman's modesty - the offence for taking upskirt videos - as a non-arrestable, bailable offence, which means it is not covered by a citizen's arrest.

Nevertheless, lawyers say it is unlikely that a lay person would have thought about the technicalities of the law.

"The only thing that matters at the material time in his or her mind would be whether an action or conduct is, to the best of their knowledge, illegal," said IRB Law senior associate Norhakim Md Shah.

However, the best option when witnessing a crime may just be to call the police as there are risks when making a citizen's arrest, said criminal lawyer Gloria James-Civetta.

A private person who does make an arrest must hand over the suspect to a police officer or take him to a police station "without unnecessary delay".

If it turns out that a crime was not committed, the person who made the arrest could face criminal charges. Civil lawsuits could also be filed.

"The bottom line is this: Never use excessive force on the apprehended person. You need to detain him only until the police arrive," said Mr Norhakim.

If a person dies during a citizen's arrest, criminal charges such as causing death by a rash or negligent act or causing grievous hurt resulting in death could be laid against those who carried out the apprehension.


"All... are serious offences which attract jail sentences," said lawyer Peter Low from Peter Low & Choo LLC.

"But exposure to these serious offences may well be unfair to so-called good Samaritans who effect the citizen's arrest. The death may well be accidental. Hence, overly enthusiastic prosecution of the good Samaritan may well deter public-spirited people from helping to apprehend law-breakers."

Ms James-Civetta said the prosecution would have to prove that the person making the arrest intended to cause harm or injury.

In addition, a civil claim could be brought if a person acted outside the scope of what is reasonably expected of him, she added.

There have been suggestions in recent days of introducing "good Samaritan laws" to provide legal protection for people carrying out a citizen's arrest, but that would not be ideal, said lawyer Amarick Gill.

"The law applies to all equally and given the dynamics of such a situation, one should not think that he has such a privilege to exercise the right of a citizen's arrest to the point of effectively becoming a 'vigilante'."

Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said there is no need for good Samaritan laws as there is no evidence that a lack of such laws is preventing people from intervening.

"Perhaps the day may come when we need to reconsider our current situation," he said.

"Until then, I think it is a greater sign of spontaneous care when we intervene to do good because the situation demands it and not because we are legally protected."