Stern warnings are issued by law-enforcement agencies in lieu of prosecutions for low level, first-time offences. The issuing of these warnings is not statutorily governed. The authorities may, in cases of public interest, briefly cite their reasons for issuing stern warnings.
The evidential requirement of issuing a stern warning remains an open issue. The Court of Appeal has stated that stern warnings are only issued after investigations have been carried out with regard to the offence in question.1 However, It is unclear as to whether a warning is issued on the basis of a prima facie case against an accused or only if there is a realistic prospect of conviction.
There are two types of stern warning: a) unconditional stern warnings and b) conditional stern warnings.2 The latter is more widely used in recent years. Typically, the condition is for suspects to remain crime-free for a period of one year after the issuance of the warning. In addition, conditional stern warnings require the suspect’s acceptance.3
Effects – General
Where a stern warning has been administered, the authorities will not take further action to prosecute. However, the authorities do reserve the right to prosecute the original offence if there has been a breach of the condition or if there has been a fresh offence, especially where the fresh offence is similar to the first.4
When an accused person is charged and given a stern warning, the prosecution can apply for a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.5 If the individual remains crime-free, pursuant to the stipulated period of the conditional stern warning, he will be granted a discharge amounting to an acquittal.6 Where an unconditional stern warning has been issued after being charged, it would amount to an immediate acquittal.7 However, it is unclear as to how prosecutorial discretion would operate over such discharging since the prosecution retains the discretion to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for any offence.8
Another unsettled issue is whether a stern warning bars a subsequent private prosecution. There is no local authority on this. The position in the UK is that a stern warning would bar such private prosecution.9 Separately, it is also unclear as to how long a stern warning is maintained by the police and how records of such warnings are shared amongst government agencies – there is no published literature on the matter.
Effects – Criminal Antecedent
The High Court in Jolovan Wham held that a stern warning a) had no legal effect and was not binding on the recipient10 and b) did not amount to a legally binding pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact.11 The holding had two implications. First, since it had no legal effect, it could not be the subject of a quashing order as the plaintiff had argued. Second, since it was not a legally binding pronouncement, an accused would not have stood a higher chance of being prosecuted compared with an individual who had not received a warning before.
Prior to Jolovan Wham, the District courts had considered stern warnings as relevant in judicial proceedings as a criminal antecedent. The District Courts also consider stern warnings for the purposes of sentencing. Following are case summaries to elaborate:
PP v Siew Boon Loong 1 SLR(R) 611: The court accepted the prosecution’s submission that the accused’s antecedents included a) a charge for attempted lurking house-trespass by night and b) for which he was given a stern warning.
PP v WG SGJC 2: In sentencing, the Juvenile Court did not consider the accused as a first time offender on account of two prior stern warnings for different offences.
PP v Muhammad Irwan Spykerman SGDC 122: For the purposes of sentencing, the district court considered a previous stern warning given by a security officer for stealing chocolates and a separate warning by a police officer for involvement in the committing of an unnatural sexual act.
PP v Tan Hiang Seng SGDC 484: In sentencing, the district court considered a stern warning, for a similar offence, as an aggravating factor.
PP v Jiang Jinxiang  SGDC 302: The accused has received a stern warning proscribing her vice activities. In sentencing for the crime of bribery, in pursuance of similar vice activities, the District Court considered the warning as an aggravating factor.
1 Tan Eng Hong v Attorney-General  SGCA 45 at .
2 Tan Hee Joek, “Be Warned of the Stern Warning” http://v1.lawgazette.com.sg/2013-09/843.htm accessed 18 June 2018.
8 Public Prosecutor v A. Karthik  SGDC 341 at .
9 The House of Lords barred a subsequent private prosecution following a stern warning stating that a prosecuting a person who had been led to believe that accepting a stern warning would remove the possibility of criminal prosecution amounted to an abuse of process. Jones v Whalley  1 AC 63.
10 Wham Kwok Han Jolovan v Attorney-General  SGHC 324 at .
11 Id at .