Whyalla Man Awarded $24,000 For An Unlawful Arrest By Police

May 23, 2019

Man Stopped By Traffic Police

A long-time Whyalla resident has been awarded $24,000 in damages after succeeded in a claim against police for false arrest, false imprisonment and assault and battery.  In awarding damages the Court made particular note of the fact that a police officer had threatened the man with capsicum spray, and had claimed not to understand when he could use the power to arrest a person despite having been a serving police officer for 35 years.

Traffic police had stopped the man while he had been driving a friend’s car for a random alcohol and drug test.  He submitted to the test without incident.  The police officer directed the man to state his full name and address however the man had handed to the officer a note on which those details were written.  The note was created on a computer and resembled a business card.  It did not contain the man’s middle name.  Not satisfied with this the police office continued to demand that the man ‘state’ his name and address to which he replied that it was ‘written on the piece of paper.’

During this exchange the man asked the police officer for his name.  The officer insisted that the man provide his name orally and the man told police that by detaining him they were committing an assault.  He was then arrested for refusing to provide his name and address.  The police told the man to ‘get out of the car’ or to ‘hop out of the car’ a number of times and when he didn’t do so he was threatened with capsicum spray which was held towards him.  Another officer arrived at the scene and the man was dragged from the car and handcuffed.

Reason For Arrest

The police officer said that his reason for arresting the man was because he had refused to provide his name and address but only handed over a piece of paper.  He didn’t know who the man was or where he was from so he didn’t know if the details were correct.  The legal power the police officer could use to direct the driver of a car to provide personal details does not demand that the person verbally state their name, but simply that they ‘give’ the officer that information.  If the officer then suspects on reasonable grounds that the details are false they can then direct the person to produce evidence of the correctness of those details.  In this case, the officer conceded that he didn’t know that ‘a simple piece of paper with a name and address on it was sufficient identification.’

Interestingly the Court commented on the fact that the police officer himself did not strictly follow what the law requires when a police officer is asked to identify himself or herself.  In these circumstances the police officer was required to identify himself by either producing his police ID or stating orally or in writing his surname, rank and identification number.  The office didn’t state his identification number or rank but had given his surname, and the Court noted that he wore a badge showing his police identification number.

The important fact was that the police officer had no basis in the slightest for thinking or suspecting that any of the information he obtained from the man was either false or misleading.  It was not correct for him to insist that those particulars were stated orally.  According to the Court, there was no basis to suspect that the information provided was false or misleading.  The Judge said about the police officer, “His demands for more by way of oral means quickly grew into pedantic and pig-headed interdiction.  Mr Johnson was of no danger or menace to anyone at that time.”  The Court held, “The decision to arrest for the failure to state his full name and address was plainly unreasonable,” and that the officer’s, “understanding of his power of arrest was questionable and untenable” even though he had been a serving police officer for around 35 years.  “The act of arrest amounted to an ‘outrageous and unwarrantable exercise of arbitrary power.’”

Earlier Incidents Of Police Brutality

The man claimed that he was victimised by local police and gave examples of previous incidents when the car he had been driving was defected by police for what he claimed were unjustified reasons.  One earlier incident resulted in a charge of hindering police for which he was acquitted which became the basis of a headline in the local paper, ‘Local Man Found Not Guilty of Hindering Charges.’  The Court found however that there was no evidence to support the claim that the officers involved on this occasion had any knowledge of the earlier incidents.

The man claimed that once he was taken out of the car by force he was thrown to the ground and his head was smashed against the boot of the vehicle two or three times.  The police officers denied that was what happened.  Nevertheless, it was accepted that he was placed over the rear boot and cuffed from behind because he was resisting.  It was possible that his head was pushed against the boot of the car in the process.  The police officer conceded that he ‘placed his knee into’ the man’s shoulder at that time.

The Court found that the man was entitled to use reasonable force to resist an unlawful arrest.  As the police officer had no reasonable grounds for arresting the man an assault had been committed.  The wrongful arrest also meant that the man succeeded in a claim for false imprisonment.  The Court said that the man had suffered damage because of the “unpleasant, ignominious and forceful manner in which he was restrained and for the consequential loss of liberty” for a period of three hours.  The Court also noted that it took 40 minutes to get the man to the police station which was only a 10 minute drive away.

There was no medical evidence that the man suffered a lasting injury, but in determining what damages to award the Court accepted that the man had experienced a degree of temporary right shoulder pain over a number of days along with migraine headaches.  There was no evidence that he had lost any income and there was no need for future medical treatment.

According to the Court, “The actions of [the police officer] were particularly high-handed, cynical, spirited and aggregarious [sic].”  “He exhibited a blatant disregard for [the man’s] liberty and rights and went well beyond the due and reasonable enforcement of the law.”  “This arrest was humiliating as it took place in public, was degrading in the degree and nature of the force used included [sic] being kneed, placed in a shoulder lock and because [the man] was caged in the police cage vehicle for an inexplicably prolonged period of time.”  Matters were aggravated by the fact of handcuffing behind his back and by unceremoniously placing him in a police-cage vehicle.

Court Awarded $10,000

An award of $10,000 was made for general damages, unlawful arrest, assault and false imprisonment.

The Court described the police officer’s threats to use capsicum spray as a ‘most weighty consideration’.  It was a breach of Police Guidelines which state that capsicum spray is designed for ‘defensive purposes’ and to resolve a ‘violent situation’, not to threaten a man to make him get out of his car.  A further concern was what the Court described as to officer’s ‘unpersuasive explanation’ of his understanding of the powers of arrest after 35 years active service on the beat.  An award of $6,000 for aggravated damages was given.

Particular features of the case also led the Court to award exemplary damages.  Exemplary damages are awarded to punish a defendant for ‘conscious wrongdoing in contumelious disregard of another’s rights’.  The threats to capsicum spray the man, the failure by SAPOL to apologise or acknowledge wrongdoing, the officer’s disregard for the limits of his powers of arrest all contributed to an award of $8,000 on account of exemplary damages.

In total the man was awarded $24,000.  The Court still has to decide on the question of interest and legal costs.

There is no question that police have a difficult job, however there is never an excuse of acting beyond the powers given to them.  Websters Lawyers have been involved in numerous successful cases involving claims against the police for assault and other causes of action.  Anyone who has been the subject of police brutality or inappropriate or unlawful action by police can speak with a lawyer specialising in an obligation free first consultation.  Call 8231 1363 or contact us here.

Johnson v The State of South Australia [2019] SADC 35