Kleptomaniac escapes harsher jail term
Recent Case: Public Prosecutor v. Goh Lee Yin,  SGHC 205.
In May 2007, 26-year-old Goh Lee Yin was sentenced by a District Court to one day’s imprisonment and fined $8,000 for theft. Goh, a kleptomaniac who had been shoplifting since she was nine, had taken handbags worth $2,335 off the shelves of Coach and Louis Vuitton. Dissatisfied with the sentence, the prosecution appealed, arguing that a harsher sentence was appropriate since Goh had committed the present offences while on probation for similar shoplifting offences she had committed in 2005. However, VK Rajah JA declined to increase the sentence.
In coming to his conclusion, His Honour considered the general principles of sentencing and their relationship to the special characteristics of kleptomania. Rehabilitation, was the most important sentencing consideration in cases of this nature while deterrence and incapacitation were comparatively less significant. Probation would thus usually be the weapon of choice. However, His Honour left open the possibility that incarceration might be appropriate where the offender has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for treatment. This would also be the case if the offender cannot observe a proper course of treatment for want of family support or where he does not respond well to treatment.
His Honour was quick to limit his emphasis on rehabilitation to cases involving low-key offences such as those committed by kleptomaniacs. The principle was not one that could be applied in all cases of offences committed owing to a psychiatric disease. The offences committed by kleptomaniacs were special as they “do not seriously affect or inconvenience [the] public,” he noted, especially since the number of kleptomaniac offenders in Singapore was small. “[I]n cases involving serious offences, incapacitation would usually form the focus of the sentencing process,” he added.
Is this case a sign of the courts going “soft” on shoplifters? Rajah JA was careful to assert that it was not. His Honour declared unequivocally that the law would continue to come down hard on run-of-the-mill shoplifters, and that kleptomania will only be considered in the sentencing process if it has been “rigorously diagnosed by a competent independent psychiatrist”.
At the same time, Rajah JA urged the prosecution to be more discerning in bringing cases involving kleptomaniacs to the courts. He concurred with Yong Pung How CJ (as he then was), who in an earlier case had expressed the opinion that the courts are ill-equipped to deal with these cases as they are forced to choose between imprisonment and probation, neither of which is an entirely satisfactory option. The hands of judges are tied in this way because kleptomaniacs often know exactly what they are doing and that their actions are contrary to law. They are therefore unable to plead the ‘unsound mind’ defence, which would ordinarily enable the courts to acquit the offender and commit him to a mental hospital or other safe custody. Bemoaning the lack of suitable judicial options, Rajah JA reiterated Yong CJ’s point that it was better to keep cases involving kleptomaniacs away from the courts and refer them instead to the appropriate Ministry or government agency, where better solutions could be devised.
In his judgment, Rajah JA placed great emphasis on the evidence of two psychiatric experts who gave their views on the nature of kleptomania as a disease and their predictions as to how Goh would respond to treatment. Also, a significant amount of academic authority was cited, as is typical of local appellate judgments these days. The submissions of counsel for both parties, however, received comparatively less attention. This appears to be a result of His Honour’s distrust of the adversarial system in cases such as this one. “Opposing parties adopt slogans and viewpoints which, like medieval battle colours, serve opposite sides of the divide without pinpointing the exact problems and ascertaining the objective and unbiased medical evidence which should form the focus of the court’s attention,” he said.
In the result, the prosecution’s appeal was dismissed, leaving the one-day prison sentence intact. However, since the offences constituted a breach of her probation order, a fresh probation term of 18 months was imposed on Goh. Outside the courtroom, a relieved Goh was reported to have broken into a smile, hugged her boyfriend and thanked the 10 family members and friends with her.
Mohan Gopalan is a second year student and an associate editor with SLR.