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High Court Judge Quentin Loh wondered out loud if a person can be guilty of committing an offence if law enforcers had given permission for him to carry out that activity.
This occurred during the appeal hearing of Chee Siok Chin, Chee Soon Juan, Chong Kai Xiong, Seelan Palay and John Tan. The five were appealing their conviction of conducting an assembly without a permit when they distributed pamphlets and sold Tak Boleh Tahan (can’t take it) T-shirts on 9 Aug 08 at Toa Payoh Central.
The appellants had conducted the same activity a few months earlier on 1 May that year also at Toa Payoh Central to commemorate May Day. As can be seen from this video, the group was also selling Tak Boleh Tahan and distributing flyers on that occasion.
On 1 May the police, after observing the activity, came to the conclusion that there was no illegal assembly and that no offence had been committed. They issued the following statement which was published on 2 May 08 in the Today newspaper:
Police received a call from the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council reporting that Chee Soon Juan was distributing pamphlets, and had set up a table selling books and T-shirts at Toa Payoh Central. Police observation in response to the call confirmed it. Chee did not stage an unlawful assembly or an illegal outdoor demonstration. (emphasis added)
Based on this statement, the group then proceeded to conduct a similar activity a few months later on 9 August to commemorate National Day.
This time, however, the police prosecuted the participants for assembly without a permit and District Judge Kessler Soh found the SDP members and activists guilty. (Read report here)
“How can we be expected to reasonably know that a permit was needed for the activity when the police had stated that the same activity conducted earlier was permissible?” asked Dr Chee Soon Juan.
Justice Loh seemed confused as well. He asked the Deputy Public Prosecutor for clarification: If someone asks a friend for permission to do something and that something turned out to be against the law, it would be difficult for him to say that his friend had given him permission and expect to use that as a defence in a court of law.
“But in this case,” Judge Loh pointed out, “it was the police who had said that there was no offence committed.”
The DPP insisted, however, that the appellants knew that a permit was required and that ignorance of the law was not a defence.
Dr Chee responded that ignorance of the law implies an absence of knowledge. In this case, the appellants were told unambiguously by the police that a group of people distributing pamphlets and selling books and T-shirts did not constitute an unlawful assembly.
The Judge indicated that he needed time to think over the issue and reserved judgement.