ACT News

Police capsicum-sprayed young woman after arresting her on wrong charge

Police arrested a young woman on the wrong charge before capsicum-spraying her over a minor disturbance in the Civic bus interchange, a court has found.

The improper arrest of the 26-year-old has prompted a Canberra magistrate to tell police they may need to improve training in what legally constitutes a breach of the peace.

Police were called to the interchange in the early hours of Saturday, May 24 last year, after reports of a woman yelling loudly and kicking a bus stop sign. 

They yelled out to her to stop, but allege that she turned and walked away from the officers.

She continued to yell and began hitting a glass window, police say, before they stopped her and tried to calm her down.

The officers, according to court documents, feared she would breach the peace if allowed to leave by herself, and so tried to arrest her.

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She allegedly kept yelling, tried to break free, and attempted to push past police, saying "just let me go home".

Police used capsicum spray once, but it was blocked by her hair and hand. 

They fired the OC spray again, this time with "immediate effect". 

She was charged with two counts of obstructing or resisting a public official, and breaching the peace.

But, in court last month, the woman's lawyer, Paul Edmonds,  argued that the police had no legal basis to arrest her.

Mr Edmonds said that none of her actions amounted to a breach of the peace.

That, he said, meant their detention of the woman was unlawful, and she could not be charged with resisting arrest.

Magistrate Bernadette Boss ultimately dismissed the case against the woman, and made no finding of guilt. 

Dr Boss found that police had arrested her on the wrong charge, and that a breach of the peace required others to be around. 

However, the magistrate did accept that the officers were acting in good faith. 

Mr Edmonds said on Monday that, "The magistrate accepted my argument that, even taking the police case at its highest ... none of that amounted to a breach of peace."

"It's not a breach of peace to make a lot of noise, for example, or even to damage property."

Dr Boss asked the prosecution to raise the issue with police, saying that further training may be needed around what constituted a breach of the peace.

ACT Policing said it would consider the court's comments and modify training if necessary.

But a spokeswoman said the force was satisfied that the officers acted in good faith when they made the arrest. 

"The defendant's actions required police intervention and police acted appropriately and in accordance with Commissioner's Order in relation to the use of force and in compliance with the law," she said. 

Mr Edmonds said the case was disturbing. 

"There's clearly a pretty important principle at stake – if the people to whom we entrust the power to enforce laws don't uphold it themselves, well it puts everyone's rights at risk."

The woman cannot take civil action against police, because of a six month time limit, but was considering submitting an official complaint to ACT Policing, Mr Edmonds said.

He said the incident had left her shaken and scared.

"I don't know what further consequences there may be for the officers involved, but at least the defendant received the right verdict in relation to her charges."

No internal investigation had taken place because no formal complaint had been recieved, police said.