SINGAPORE: Seven people who flouted COVID-19 laws by drinking alcohol and having social gatherings at Robertson Quay were fined between S$8,000 and S$9,000 on Thursday (Jun 25).
The seven people comprised two groups: Four men who went on a pub crawl, visiting three pubs to drink and chat, and a married couple who met a man walking a dog and offered him beer.
Those in the pub crawl were given a fine each of S$9,000, with the judge turning down the prosecution's call for a week's jail each.
They are: Neil Gordon Buchan, a 30-year-old British national; Perry Scott Blair, a 37-year-old British citizen; James Titus Beatt, a 33-year-old British national and Joseph William Poynter, a 35-year-old British citizen.
The married couple, Americans Bao Nguyen Brown, 40, and Jeffrey George Brown, 52, were each fined S$8,000 along with Michael Czerny, a 45-year-old Austrian national.
All seven pleaded guilty to one count each of breaching COVID-19 regulations by meeting each other without reasonable excuse.
The court heard that the men in the first group had met by chance along Robertson Quay on the evening of May 16, when the COVID-19 "circuit breaker" was in force, prohibiting non-essential outings and social gatherings.
Beatt ran into Poynter, who had just cycled to Robertson Quay, while Buchan bumped into them at a bar called Bar Bar Black Sheep after ending his walk, and Blair had gone for a run.
The four men drank beer before walking to another bar named Boomerang. One of them left briefly to buy cigarettes, before regrouping at a third outlet - Rosso Vino, where they chatted and drank alcohol.
The prosecutor showed footage from various angles, showing the men meeting, most of them in shorts and running shoes, talking and laughing or on their phones while gathered outside Rosso Vino.
The Browns had gone to TAP@Robertson Quay that same evening to buy food from an Indian restaurant for dinner, when they saw a "buy three get one free" offer for beer, said their lawyer Mirza Namazie.
When there, they bumped into co-accused Czerny, who was walking his dog. They offered him a beer and they stood along the pathway outside the restaurant chatting for about half an hour.
All seven had no previous convictions in Singapore, the court heard.
PROSECUTOR PUSHED FOR JAIL FOR PUB CRAWLERS
Deputy Public Prosecutor Timotheus Koh asked for at least a week's jail for each of the men in the first group, noting the "audacious nature of the breach" committed.
He said the four men walked in a group down a busy pathway and visited three bars in a session lasting about 45 minutes, drinking with their masks down.
"The accused persons knew but did not care that they were breaking the law by engaging in a pub crawl," said Mr Koh, adding that this gives the impression "that our laws can be disregarded with impunity".
He added that such behaviour must be denounced, as most people, especially frontliners, had given up socialising to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 during the circuit breaker period.
The men were close to each other, less than a metre apart, and did not take any safe distancing measures.
Their actions "can cause the perception that our laws can be wantonly disobeyed", said Mr Koh.
READ: COVID-19: Robertson Quay restaurants ordered to stop selling takeaway alcohol to prevent gatherings
He asked for a high fine of S$9,000 for the second group comprising the Browns and Czerny, and said this group could be distinguished from the first as the first group visited multiple locations but this group remained only at TAP.
Defence lawyer Shashi Nathan, who represented Beatt and Buchan from the first group, said his clients had never been in trouble with the law before and are "persons of good character" who have been in Singapore "for a while now".
He said they both have "good jobs", without specifying what these are, and asked for fines of between S$3,000 and S$5,000.
DEFENCE SAYS JAIL IMPOSED IN ONLY ONE OTHER CASE
He said it was "not fair" to say this was a blatant disregard of Singapore's laws, but instead that it was a mistake and error of judgment, and that his clients "do care about the laws".
He said his clients have been "subject to various abuse on the Internet" the moment the case came to light and "tremendous social media commentary" ensued.
"People talking about them, and ... (I'm) shocked to say that some of the comments even appeared racist ... saying that Singapore should just kick them out."
The judge interjected to say that the court does not take such social media posts into account and was not swayed by them.
Mr Shashi said the posts affected his clients, and that they "may lose their status to stay in Singapore".
"Of course, that's outside the control of the court, and in control of the immigration authorities. But compared to other cases where Singaporeans were involved, they didn't have that hanging over their heads," said the lawyer.
He flagged several other cases of similar breaches, noting that one man was only fined despite breaching the law three times, while another - Francis Soh - was also only fined even though he posted on Facebook about the illegal gathering he was in.
READ: 'Illegal gathering, so what': Man fined for having dinner with cousin-in-law during circuit breaker
Another case - where nine foreign students met up in an apartment - was also met only with fines, said Mr Shashi.
Of other cases where prohibitions on social gatherings were breached, only one case has led to a jail term - that of three men who went kayaking and camping on Pulau Ubin.
Mr Shashi said his clients' case was not as severe as this case, objecting to the prosecutor's description of the foot traffic at Robertson Quay at the time as "heavy" and adding that "there were other people not wearing masks".
"Both James and Neil have been living and working in Singapore for some time," he said. "They don't want to go to jail for this, but they are very worried about being asked to leave Singapore. They've built their lives here - Neil has got a wife here. This is their home."
The lawyer added that "we cannot have people coming to the conclusion wrongly that Singapore has different rules for foreigners and Singaporeans".
Jailing the men when most others had been fined for similar breaches would send a wrong signal, he said.
Lawyer Christopher Bridges, who defended Poynter and Blair, also highlighted that there must be consistency in sentencing, otherwise it "would be a lottery" in which justice turns on an individual's subjective view.
He also tendered testimonials on his clients, saying that their acts were "totally out of character", and tried to object to the prosecution's characterisation of the incident as a "pub crawl".
CHARGES TRAUMATISED THEM: DEFENCE
Lawyer Mirza Namazie, who defended the Browns and Czerny, said that the couple had gone for a walk and wanted to buy dinner and go home when they saw the offer for beer.
While drinking, they saw Czerny, who "unfortunately was walking his dog at the time and got dragged into this".
"They saw many people drinking beer in cups and didn't realise the gravity of the situation then," said Mr Mirza, adding that his clients have been "completely traumatised" by the charges they faced.
The Browns have a son in school, and "comments have been passed over him", said the lawyer. "The teacher rang them up and asked when are they leaving Singapore."
He said whatever fine imposed on them "will never match up to the trauma they faced in facing these charges".
The Browns have lived in Singapore for 13 to 14 years and are law-abiding people with school-going children, he said.
Mr Mirza said the meeting was not pre-planned or premeditated, and happened because Czerny lived nearby.
He asked for fines of S$2,000, adding that his clients will "live with it" if a higher fine is imposed, but urged the court not to impose one near the maximum of S$10,000.
District Judge Bala Reddy said that both groups flagrantly breached the law for unnecessary and frivolous reasons, but disagreed with the prosecutor that jail should be imposed for the first group.
He also disagreed with arguments that the second group was less culpable, saying that both groups breached the laws in full view of the public at a time when human traffic was high.
"The court will not hesitate to take a tough stance against any non-compliance of laws," said Judge Reddy. "But seriousness must be tampered with proportionality to the circumstances of the offence."
He said that while the accused persons' conduct was "certainly deplorable", this has to be balanced with the fact "that the breach did not last beyond an hour ... and was contained within Robertson Quay".
For breaching COVID-19 regulations, each of the seven could have been jailed for up to six months, fined up to S$10,000, or both.
Two more men have been charged over gathering at Robertson Quay and their cases are pending.