Seen a police raid? Why tipping off someone about it can be illegal
Several nightclub employees were recently hauled to court for tipping off contacts in other clubs about police raids. Lawyers explain what makes this illegal.
SINGAPORE: In the past week, several nightclub employees have been hauled to court for tipping off contacts in other clubs about ongoing police raids.
A club bouncer got 17 weeks’ jail and a fine for sending more than 60 messages alerting members of two chat groups about such raids.
He did this knowing that members of the groups would likely take steps to prevent the detection of offences in the vicinity of the raids, court documents stated.
In similar cases last week, a customer service officer at a club was jailed for two weeks and fined, while seven other club employees were fined for sending tip-offs to chat groups.
After the convictions, several people raised questions on social media, asking what made these actions illegal.
Lawyers whom CNA spoke to pointed to Section 204A of the Penal Code, which penalises acts that obstruct, prevent, pervert or defeat the course of justice.
This provision was amended at the start of 2020.
Previously, the offender needed to have the intention to obstruct justice, said Mr Chooi Jing Yen, partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.
The amendment lowered the requirements for the offence to committing an act that "has a tendency" to obstruct justice, while knowing that it is likely the act will obstruct justice.
Mr Mark Yeo, senior associate at Kalco Law LLC, said it was also likely that the enforcement action had to be ongoing at the time the messages were sent to the groups for there to be an offence.
He pointed to a judgment issued last year by a High Court judge, which stated: “If an accused person is aware or has reason to believe that some wrongdoing has been or may have been committed ... and consequently takes steps to somehow thwart or prevent the investigation into or the prosecution of the wrongdoing, he is guilty of an offence under Section 204A.
“He does not need to know what specific offence may have been committed. He only needs to be aware of facts that may amount to wrongdoing.”
Mr Yeo said this was especially so in the club bouncer’s case because the man’s messages included information like the locations of the raids and police vehicle licence plate numbers.
Both lawyers also said it is not necessary for an offender to have come across the information illegally in order for the tip-off to be an offence.
Those who tipped off the chat groups generally knew about the raids when they were conducted at their workplaces, or when they spotted police vehicles nearby, court documents stated.
Mr Chooi said it is well-established that the offence of obstruction of justice does not depend on how the offender came across the information in the tip-off.
Additionally, if knowledge of the raids was obtained through insider knowledge, it could be an offence under the Official Secrets Act, Mr Yeo said.
Reacting to the club bouncer’s case, other people brought up the example of fellow drivers warning each other to move illegally parked cars when a traffic warden is spotted.
When asked whether this is also an obstruction of justice, the lawyers said it is potentially an offence, but there could be good reasons not to prosecute.
Illegal parking is a fairly trivial and common regulatory offence, said Mr Chooi, and authorities could be more concerned with reducing incidents of it than prosecuting the offenders.
“Seen this way, drivers who alert others about traffic wardens in the area (and thereby encourage them to move their cars away) may actually be promoting the goal of reducing incidents of illegal parking," he said.
Mr Chooi said that Singapore seemed to subscribe to this notion especially for road traffic offences.
“We would rather prevent the offence than prosecute it. For example, we have road signs on our expressways alerting drivers that a speed camera is up ahead, and road signs at certain junctions alerting drivers that there is a red light camera at that junction.
“The philosophy is not so much to catch and prosecute offenders, but to prevent there being so many offenders in the first place.”
Mr Yeo said it was likely that the potential wrongdoing in the clubs was significantly more serious than traffic violations.
He added that it appeared the nightclub employees were working as a group, and their acts were premeditated and planned solely to evade enforcement action.
Syndicated or group offences are typically treated more seriously than offences committed spontaneously by individuals, he said.