What Happens If Arrested Person Dies in Police Custody?

What happens if an arrested person dies in police custody? Who is accountable for the death and why? This issue was recently dealt with in Syed Mohamed Nur Ali v Weddrin Mojingkin & Ors1. We will briefly look at the case.

Brief facts of the case

This suit was instituted by Mohamed Nur Ali against a group of police officers, inspector general of police, and the Malaysian government. The brief facts are as follow:

  1. Mohamed Nur Ali’s son, Syed Mohd Azlan Syed Mohamed Nur, was arrested and detained by a group of police officers at a witness home.
  2. While the arrest was under-way, it was alleged by the witness that the police officers began to beat Mohd Azlan.
  3. Mohd Azlan was then brought to the local police station for interrogation.
  4. Once that was done, he was taken from the police station to the police headquarters in the local district for further interrogation.
  5. It was on the way to the headquarters that the police personnel escorting Mohd Azlan realized that Mohd Azlan was in a weak condition. They immediately took him to a clinic, where he was subsequently pronounced dead by the doctors of the clinic.
  6. A post mortem was conducted on the body of Mohd Azlan. It was discovered that his body had 61 wounds/ injuries to the body, caused by “blunt force trauma”.
  7. Two suits were instituted against the police officers involved:
    1. A criminal suit was instituted by the prosecutors against the police officers. To date, the matter pending trial in the Court of Appeal; and
    2. A civil suit (the suit which we will be focusing on today) was instituted by Mohamed Nur Ali on his own behalf and that of his wife as the dependents of Mohd Azlan against the police officer.

The High Court sided with Mohamed Nur Ali and awarded him and his wife a sum of RM448,000.00 as compensation and damages for what has happened to Mohd Azlan. The court noted that while there conflicting accounts of what happened raised by both parties, the evidence clearly shows that there was police brutality and the death of Mohd Azlan was caused by the acts of the police officers.

What happens next?

In coming to its decision, the court (amongst others) stated that while the arrest is lawful, the police officers nonetheless still owed a statutory duty of care to  Mohd Azlan to ensure that Mohd Azlan’s life is protected and preserved while under their custody2. In this regard:

  1. The High Court noted that the moment Mohd Azlan was arrested, the police officers have effectively deprived Mohd Azlan of his personal liberty and have assumed control of Mohd Azlan. It is for this reason that the police officers came under a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of Mohd Azlan during arrest3.
  2. By arresting Mohd Azlan (and in the process depriving him of his freedom), the police officers have effectively created an expectation that as the party that undertakes the responsibility for Mohd Azlan himself, they are to protect Mohd Azlan from being harmed or put in harm’s way at all cost4.
  3. Mohd Azlan was not afforded any protection by the police officers. In fact, it was made worse by the fact that after the beating, Mohd Azlan was not brought to any clinic or hospital for a medical checkup- he was simply left to hang dry and when the police escort realized it, it was too little too late to save Mohd Azlan.
  4. On the above point, the court also noted that as an arrested person, Mohd Azlan would not be in a position to have himself medically attended to as he would a freeman. Therefore, the police owed him a duty to ensure that appropriate medical care would be extended to him during the period he was in custody5.

As none of the above was observed, the court has no choice but to hold the police officers accountable for their actions after they arrested Mohd Azlan.

Conclusion

The police force is a public professional body and as in other professional bodies there exist duties of care in the discharge of their powers6. If those powers are not exercised in accordance with the law, they, like any other citizens, are equally subjected to the law of the land.

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1. [2020] 3 CLJ 133.
2. Section 20, Police Act 1967, and Police Regulations 1952.
3. Howard v Jarvis [1958] 98 CLR 177.
4. Halsbury’s Laws of Malaysia (volume 5, 2000), paragraph 80.132.
5. Suzana Md Aris v DSP Ishak Hussain & Ors [2010] 6 CLJ 712.
6. Datuk Seri Khalid Abu Bakar & ORs v N Indra P Nallathamby & Another Appeal [2014] 9 CLJ 15.

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