On 21 November 2017 the NSW Court of Appeal held that Mr Trent Exton not arrested when told to get out of a vehicle by police officers.

This case is authority for the principle that giving a person a direction to move to or stay in a place does not automatically give rise to a detention, even if the person subject to the direction believes they are detained. Rather, the person’s belief must be considered and justified in all of the circumstances before a false imprisonment arises that requires lawful justification.

Background

On 19 April 2013, Mr Trent Exton was asked to exit the back seat of a vehicle by Constable Chapman. Constable Chapman told Mr Exton words to the effect: “Trent, can you get out of the car? I don’t want to have to drag you out. Can you get out?” Mr Exton exited the vehicle in an aggressive manner and, according to Chapman, said words to the effect of: “Lets go, mother-fucker Lets go.” He was brought to the ground, restrained, and placed under arrest by police and charged with assault police and resist arrest.

District Court decision

Mr Exton commenced proceedings in the District Court claiming damages for false imprisonment.

At trial, Constable Chapman gave evidence that he was “bluffing” when he told Mr Exton to get out of the vehicle or be dragged out. There was a dispute as to whether police had reasonable grounds to suspect the plaintiff was assaulting police by the manner of his exiting the vehicle. It was common ground, however, that Mr Exton had been arrested after leaving the vehicle and after being restrained by police officers.

On 13 April 2017 the trial judge Levy SC DCJ gave judgment for Mr Exton in the sum of $38,072. The trial judge found that the plaintiff had been placed under arrest when directed by Constable Chapman to get out of the vehicle. The basis of this finding was the Mr Exton’s will had been overborne by the direction given by Constable Chapman.

The State sought leave to appeal from that judgment of the trial judge on a number of grounds, including that the trial judge had erred in his finding as to when the plaintiff was arrested.

Court of Appeal decision

On 21 November 2017 the Court of Appeal, comprised of Basten JA, Leeming JA and Meagher JA delivered judgment allowing the State’s appeal. Basten JA gave the leading judgment, Leeming and Meagher agreeing.

Basten JA reviewed the authorities as to when a person is subject to a detention that must be lawfully justified vs when a person is given a direction to which they may voluntarily submit, requiring no justification. He concluded that a person’s belief that they are detained will not, on its own, be sufficient to create a deprivation of liberty. Rather, their belief must be objectively supportable in the circumstances.

Even if a person complies with the direction of a police officer or public official out of a commonly held but mistaken belief that a request constitutes a command that must be obeyed, their mistaken belief does not mean they are falsely imprisoned.

Applying these principles, Basten JA found that even though Constable Chapman had directed Mr Exton to leave the vehicle, it did not follow that the plaintiff was arrested from that point in time.

Basten JA noted that a direction to leave a vehicle did not give rise to a false imprisonment. At [25]:

“It is true that words accompanied by threat, express or implicit, of compulsion in the event of non-compliance can constitute a total deprivation of liberty, but they will usually require the person not to move or to accompany the commander to another place and remain there.”

Because the trial judge had incorrectly found that the plaintiff was detained from the moment he was directed to leave the vehicle, his conclusion that the arrest was unlawful was unsound. The trial judge should have considered whether Mr Exton was lawfully arrested after he left the vehicle and was restrained.

The Court allowed the appeal and set aside the District Court judgment.

Implications

The Court of Appeal’s decision sensibly confirms that the making a request, or even the giving of an express direction, by a public officer to a person does not of itself create a false imprisonment that must be justified. This is so even if the person subject to the direction believes they are detained. The person’s belief must be objectively supportable in the circumstances.

This decision gives relief to public officers whose day-to-day work involves the making of requests and giving of directions to people, such as a police officer asking a person to “stop” on the street, or a correctional officer asking a person to “come over here”.

Although the Court has held that giving directions does not automatically create false imprisonments, it has quite deliberately left open the possibility that it may, depending on the circumstances. Each situation will turn on its own facts.

Care must still be taken by public officers to ensure that the words used, or the surrounding circumstances, do not give the person subject to the direction a reasonable belief that they have no real choice and are compelled to obey.