A black Ugandan-born psychologist has been awarded $30,000 in damages, after appeal court judges found he was unlawfully arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and kept in a Sydney cell.
Musa Lule “is entitled to a substantial award of damages for what was an undoubtedly traumatic, humiliating, frightening and embarrassing experience,” the NSW Appeal Court said on Friday.
Mr Lule, an Australian citizen born in Uganda in 1970, successfully challenged a District Court judge’s decision that rejected his civil claim against the State of NSW over his arrest in December 2014.
He was visiting his uncle in Merrylands, in Sydney’s west, when he was arrested following a break and enter at a nearby unit about an hour earlier.
The victim described the culprit as of African-American appearance, possibly wearing a white t-shirt and blue shorts. On arrest, Mr Lule was wearing a white shirt and blue shorts.
The victim’s partner, who had only seen the offender from behind as he ran away, told attending police “that car has driven past several times, that is him in the car”.
The car contained three black men of Ugandan heritage including Mr Lule, said Justice Robert Macfarlan, sitting with Justices Margaret Beazley and Reginald Barrett.
Senior Constable Matthew Thomas formed the view that Mr Lule matched the victim’s description. He was arrested, handcuffed, transported in a caged police vehicle to the local police station, strip-searched and confined in a cell.
He was released about two hours later, with no explanation or apology for his arrest.
His friends had told police they had driven to a shopping centre with him and had slowed down outside the apartment to see what police were doing.
Police inspected the centre’s CCTV footage and confirmed Mr Lule’s presence, while the true culprit later handed himself in.
In finding reasonable grounds did not exist for Const Thomas’ suspicion that Mr Lule was the offender, Justice Macfarlan noted white T-shirts and blue shorts were not uncommon – especially on a mid-summer weekend.
Mr Lule’s skin colour could not have provided a proper basis for identifying him, as there were many black people in the Merrylands area.
When Mr Lule and his friend had asked why he was being arrested, Const Thomas had shown “an unjustifiably closed mind” failing to ask questions about where he had been earlier or whether those in the apartment had been with him at that time.
He was arrested, in front of his uncle and friends, without being given the opportunity to respond to police suspicions, handcuffed outside the building in view of onlookers, received “a blow to the back” and endured a demeaning strip search.
“Understandably, he was traumatised, angry and shocked by what occurred and suffers anxiety stemming from the incident,” the judge said.