March 3rd, 2015

Strip-search powers are excessive

By Goh Li Sian, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, AWARE

police1We are troubled that the recently passed liquor control law has extended police powers to include discretionary strip searches for alcohol, with little public consultation in this regard (“New alcohol laws aimed at those who cause trouble”; Jan 31).

Even when conducted in good faith, strip searches are an extreme measure which substantially affects human dignity. They should be used only with especially compelling justification. Allowing police officers to deploy them so widely is a very significant step.

For a strip search to be legal, the Act requires only that the police officer has “reasonable suspicion”. This low threshold may authorise many unnecessary strip searches.

Moreover, these searches are not intended to locate dangerous items such as radioactive material or firearms, but alcohol, a substance which is not even illegal to possess.

This expansion of powers carries the danger of abuse.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has already been contacted by a female member of the public who is distressed at the possibility of being sexually assaulted by a police officer exercising these powers discriminatorily or abusively, with alcohol as a mere pretext.

Others have already raised concerns about the wide-ranging stop and search powers.

These concerns have not been allayed by police assurances to take action based on the situation. Should such a radical measure as strip searching be available at such broad discretion?

In 2013 and last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs held a consultation on restricting the public consumption of liquor and shortening sale hours of liquor at retail outlets.

Most participants favoured a partial ban on the public consumption of alcohol. However, it does not appear that participants were asked about whether police powers should be increased to enforce such measures, let alone their views on the use of strip searches.

Aware has had significant positive experiences with public consultations in the past.

For example, many individuals and groups were consulted in detail at various stages in the development of the Protection from Harassment Act.

We urge the Government to ensure that public consultations for laws which import wide-ranging restrictions on civil liberties always include seeking feedback on the text of the draft legislation, and not just feedback on broad principles.

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 10 February 2014.

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