Source: nickmikhailrazak / Instagram

Actor Nick Mikhail Razak’s account of safe distancing enforcement officers entering his residence without a warrant over alleged COVID-19 breaches last week raised issues on whether such officers’ powers are overarching.

Attaching CCTV footage to his Instagram post regarding the incident, Mr Nick said on 1 August that his wife was alone at home at the time the inspection took place.

He said that his wife was feeling somewhat under the weather after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“No female escorted my wife while she she goes to the room with one URA officer,” Mr Nick Mikhail wrote, adding that a female officer was present at the scene, though she was seemingly occupied with his photo frame.

“The police stand outside with their body cam and not document what’s happening inside the room when my wife was alone with one male officer. No safe distancing,” he said.

URA, however, claimed that safe distancing enforcement officers are “empowered to enter, inspect and search various premises, including residences, without a warrant, to check whether COVID-19 regulations are being complied with”.

The provisions of two pieces of legislation confirm the scope of powers safe distancing enforcement officers described by URA above, namely those outlined in the Infectious Diseases Act and the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020.

Section 35 of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act states that individuals who can be appointed as enforcement officers include — but are not limited to — a police officer, an auxiliary police officer, a public officer, and an officer of a statutory body.

Such officers, upon their appointment by the Health Minister, will have “all the powers of a health officer” authorised under the Infectious Diseases Act to decide whether individuals or entities have complied with COVID-19 regulations.

They will have the power to prevent individuals or groups from leaving any premises as per the control order, or compel such individuals or groups against entering any prohibited premises.

Such officers will also have the power to direct the groups of individuals to disperse.

More notably, Section 8 provides a waiver from liability against such officers in the course of carrying out their duties if it was found that they have done so in good faith and with reasonable care. This applies to any omission that may have occurred under similar circumstances.

Under the definition of “Good faith” in the Penal Code, one is considered to have conducted in good faith if there is due care and attention in the conduct or intention at the time the act was carried out.

This sets a high threshold for anyone to prove beyond reasonable doubt to the court that someone has not carried out their duties in good faith.

Those subjected to directions given by such officers, including searches or arrests, by such officers may be deemed to have committed an offence if they fail to or refuse to comply with the orders “without reasonable excuse” under the temporary COVID-19 law.

If found guilty, they may be subjected to a fine of up to S$10,000, or a jail term of up to six months, or both.

Subsequent offences will carry a fine of up to S$20,000, a jail term of up to 12 months, or both for each offence.

Section 83(2) of the Act states that an authorised person such as a safe distancing enforcement officer “has all the powers of a police officer not below the rank of inspector under the Criminal Procedure Code” with respect to investigations into non-arrestable offences.

Section 55A of the Infectious Diseases Act lists the powers of such officers in carrying out their investigations, including requiring individuals to produce what may be deemed relevant information or evidence.

Entry without warrant is specifically mentioned under Section 55A(b), whereby such officers are permitted to enter and inspect “at any time without warrant and with such force as may be necessary” any premises they deem to be connected to their investigations.

They are also authorised to seize any substance or matter, or any “book, document or record” found in any such premises, as seen in sub-sections (c) and (d).

The exercise of powers in the absence of a warrant does not only apply to searches, but also to arrests, as stipulated in Section 56 of the Infectious Diseases Act.

People’s Voice Party chief Lim Tean branded the SDOs’ entry into Mr Nick’s home as “an outrageous invasion of privacy”.

Mr Lim, who is also a lawyer, said that the apparent raid of the actor’s house is “the latest illustration of how various authorities have over the years given themselves wide-ranging powers”.

Such broad powers, he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday (3 August), “have gone virtually unchecked by a lame Parliament” and are an infringement of “our citizens’ rights and privacy unduly”.

Mr Lim commended Mr Nick’s move in voicing out his unhappiness regarding the search and expressed his hope that more Singaporeans would do the same.

“We must always guard our civil liberties jealously, because history teaches us that unless we do so, we will lose them.

“So whether it is TraceTogether or allowing social distancing officers to enter into one’s homes, the citizen has the right to be heard and to protest!” He said.

Citizens, Mr Lim said, must even be ready to “challenge the authorities through judicial review if we believe that they have overstepped their mark”.

The politician said that if he was a Member of Parliament, he would question Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Law Minister K Shanmugam on “whether they think that it is right that these social distancing personnel are able to enter people’s homes, when they have no proof that rules and regulations have been breached”.

While safe distancing enforcement officers have powers similar to certain police officers, safe distancing ambassadors do not.

Safe distancing enforcement officers can be identified by the red armbands they wear. The armbands carry their designated title, namely “safe distancing enforcement officer”.

Other markers appear similar to those of safe distancing ambassadors, such as their staff pass and/or lanyards, SG Clean Ambassador passes, or their respective agencies’ corporate attire.

One commenter on TODAY’s Facebook post on the matter questioned, however, whether the safe distancing enforcement officers are adequately trained to handle situations using the powers given, compared to police officers who have received such training as an inherent part of their job.

“are they familiar with the laws as to what they can or cannot do when conducting such searches?” they said.

Another commenter brought up the issue of certain individuals falsely posing as safe distancing enforcement officers and how members of the public can verify their identities before complying with orders.

The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) last year advised the public to ask a purported officer for their identification for verification purposes before complying with the officer’s instructions.

Police revealed in November last year that a 19-year-old was arrested after being suspected of impersonating a safe distancing enforcement officer.

Those found guilty of cheating can be jailed for a term of up to five years, subjected to a fine, or both.

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