SINGAPORE - Questions about whether safe distancing enforcement officers without a warrant can enter premises, including homes, to check compliance with Covid-19 regulations were raised after actor Nick Mikhail posted videos on Instagram showing three URA officers and three police officers entering his home on July 31.
The URA said on Monday (Aug 2) that safe distancing enforcement officers have the right to enter, inspect and search premises, including private residences, without a warrant to check whether Covid-19 regulations are being complied with.
The Straits Times answers questions some members of the public may have.
Q: What is the difference between safe distancing enforcement officers and safe distancing ambassadors?
A: According to the website of the National Environment Agency (NEA), safe distancing enforcement officers are empowered to enter your home to ensure compliance with Covid-19 control orders, while safe distancing ambassadors are not.
Like police officers, enforcement officers have the power to take enforcement action against people for flouting rules, such as issuing fines. An ambassador's job is to guide businesses and individuals in complying with safe distancing measures.
Q: Do safe distancing enforcement officers need a warrant to enter my house? If they do not have a warrant, should they be entering?
A: They do not need a warrant. Section 35(5) of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, which was passed in Parliament in April last year, states that enforcement officers appointed by the Health Minister have "all the powers of a health officer" authorised under Sections 55A, 55B and 57 of the Infectious Diseases Act.
Section 55 states that the health officer can "enter, inspect and search any premises" or "stop, board, inspect and search any conveyance in which an outbreak or suspected outbreak has taken place."
Lawyer Joshua Tong said: "Entering premises despite not having a warrant is up to their discretion. If they have reason to believe that occupants are flouting the rules, then they have the right to carry out their duties."
Q: How do I tell if someone is an enforcement officer?
A: According to the NEA website, you can identify enforcement officers and safe distancing ambassadors by their respective agencies' corporate attire, staff pass or lanyard. They will also carry enforcement officer passes or ambassador passes, and enforcement officers may wear a red armband as well.
Q: Who can be appointed as an enforcement officer?
A: According to Section 35(1) of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, the following people can be appointed as enforcement officers:
• a police officer
• a health officer appointed under Section 4(1)(a) or (b) of the Infectious Diseases Act
• a public officer
• an officer of a statutory body
• an auxiliary police officer
• an employee of a prescribed institution under the Infectious Disease Act, except for the purposes of subsection 2(b).
Enforcement officers from the URA are considered public officers or officers of a statutory body.
Q: Can I deny safe distancing enforcement officers and safe distancing ambassadors entry into my home?
A: No. You cannot deny an enforcement officer entry into your home without reasonable excuse, said lawyer Johannes Hadi. An example of a reasonable excuse may be genuine doubt as to their identity.
According to Section 35(9) of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, you will be committing an offence if you, without reasonable excuse, refuse or fail to comply with an enforcement officer's directions.
Under Section 35(11) of the same Act, the penalty for refusing to comply with an enforcement officer's directions is a fine of up to $10,000, or a jail term of up to six months, or both for first-time offenders.
Reoffenders can be jailed up to 12 months, fined up to $20,000, or both.
Q: What should I do if I have doubts about an enforcement officer's identity?
A: You may ask the officer to present his or her official identification. This should have the officer's name, photograph, designation, and institution. If you continue to have doubts about the veracity of the officer's identity, politely ask them to wait outside the premises while you call either their purported institution or the police for assistance.
Q: Should homeowners or members of the public feel that safe distancing officers have overstepped their boundaries or are acting inappropriately while on duty, what legal recourse do they have?
A: Enforcement officers are protected from liability in the discharge of their duties if they act in good faith or exercise reasonable care. However, if you believe that an officer has behaved inappropriately or illegally, you may either make a report to the officer's institution or, especially if you believe that a crime may have taken place, the police.
You may also wish to seek legal advice from a lawyer to understand any recourse you may have under the law. You should keep a record of the incident as evidence, such as CCTV or phone footage, audio recordings and photographs.