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Recently, a National University of Singapore (NUS) undergrad accused of insulting the modesty of another student in the same institution, received a conditional warning – or more specifically ‘conditional stern warning’ – from the police for his actions.

But what is a conditional stern warning exactly? Is the warning equivalent to a conviction? What is the significance of such a warning from a legal perspective?

Some crimes deserve more leniency than others

Stern warnings are borne of the understanding that not all crimes need to be prosecuted (although this is debatable in the court of public opinion) and that those that get away scot-free does not mean they get a free pass at a crime spree.

As a broad example:

A handicapped man who is the sole breadwinner in a family of three, steals a can of milk powder. This is his first offence. By law, this is a crime but would leniency prevail?

The case of the peeping tom in NUS, however, remains contentious.

Stern warnings

In Singapore, there are two types of stern warnings:

  1. Unconditional Stern Warnings; and
  2. Conditional Stern Warnings

A conditional stern warning comes with a stipulated time frame – i.e. 12 months – that exhorts the accused to not reoffend on the same crime he or she is warned for or commit any other fresh crimes within the said time frame. If the accused stays clean after the time period, he or she will be granted a discharge amounting to an acquittal.

In an unconditional stern warning, the accused will be granted a discharge amounting to an acquittal immediately.

It is important to note however that in the case of a conditional stern warning, a discharge not amounting to an acquittal is applied after warning issuance. This means that the accused will be let off and not charged for the offence but if he commits any other offence again within the stipulated time frame, he will be prosecuted for both the first and subsequent offence.

Conditional stern warning as a deterrence

Unlike unconditional stern warnings, a conditional stern warning requires the accused to endorse the terms in the warning. Doing so would put into writing the accused’s committment to not re-offend.

A stern warning is a form of leniency and if the warnings are not heeded, the authorities are less likely to take a lenient stance against the accused for a fresh offence, particularly if it is similar to the offence the accused was originally warned for.

Are stern warnings similar to a criminal record?

Both unconditional and conditional stern warnings are not considered criminal convictions and as such, you will not have a criminal record.

Records of stern warnings, however, are maintained by the police.

Stern warnings are not legally binding pronouncement of guilt or the finding of fact. Only the court of law has the power to make such a pronouncement or finding.

The warnings has no legal effect and only serves as an exercise of prosecutorial discretion for the relevant enforcement authorities.

A warning is no more than an expression of the opinion of the relevant authorities that the accused has committed an offence.

Why and when is a stern warning issued?

A stern warning is usually issued at the conclusion of the investigation stage by the relevant enforcement authorities without the involvement of the judiciary – court of law.

A stern warning is generally reserved for low level, first-time offences, although this is on a case-by-case basis. This is especially so for youths who are considered still in their formative years. The legal literature on such cases in Singapore are not widely disclosed however.

Do note, however, the authorities can consider aggravating factors in dealing with the offence, and if it merits a prosecution, the accused will be dealt with before the courts even if he or she has not committed a crime before.

Past warning has no impact on sentencing

The High Court has clarified in January 2019 that a stern warning – whether conditional or not, cannot be factored in during sentencing for other offences.

In deciding the appropriate punishment for an offence, the court takes into consideration various factors including the accused past convictions which may influence the severity and weight of the punishment.

As stern warnings are not considered a conviction, the court will not be able to factor in the offence the accused was warned for as an antecedent to the penalty to be imposed for a fresh offence.

If stern warnings have no legal effect, then what’s the use of it?

Stern warnings carries force because the authority is in a position to carry out its threatened course of action, i.e, to prosecute for the warned offence.

While the High Court has said that past warnings have no impact on sentencing, there were instances of past cases where such warnings were taken into consideration in court proceedings.

In 2005, a case of criminal trespass (Public Prosecutor v Siew Boon Loong), it was submitted by the Prosecution that the accused personโ€™s criminal antecedents included a charge for attempted lurking house-trespass by night and for which he was given a stern warning. The High Court accepted this as an antecedent in its judgment.

In retrospect, stern warnings serves to deter criminal behaviour.

The prosecution of such a behaviour is a different matter altogether.