What is a Stern Warning?
Law enforcement agencies issue stern warnings instead of prosecutions for low-level, first-time offences.
A case’s specific circumstances determine whether or not to charge an accused. After careful consideration, the AGC may direct the police to issue stern or conditional stern warnings for cases under particular circumstances.
In cases of public interest, the authorities may briefly cite their reasons for issuing stern warnings. Otherwise, in general, we are not privy to the specifics of why the authorities choose to proceed with a warning instead of a charge.
You can think of a stern warning as somewhat of a ‘slap on the wrist’, to warn a person that they did something wrong, but it’s not sufficiently serious, and the person deserves a second chance.
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.
Types of Stern Warnings
A stern warning informs the offender that they have committed an offence and urges them to make sure they behave accordingly in the future. In addition, they may be charged in Court if they commit another crime or reoffend in future.
When deciding the course of action in the future against the offender, the AGC will also take these stern warnings into account.
Conditional stern warnings come with more stringent requirements. For example, the offender must meet several conditions, such as not reoffending within a specified timeframe or receiving regular psychiatric treatment.
If an offender violates his conditional warning (e.g. commits an offence within the 24 months that he is expected to remain crime-free), he can be prosecuted for that original offence, as well as the fresh offence that he has committed.
Effects – General
Where a stern warning has been administered, the authorities will not take further action to prosecute.
Where a conditional warning has been administered, 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.2
When an accused person is charged and given a stern warning, the prosecution can apply for a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.3
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.4
Where an unconditional stern warning has been issued after being charged, it would amount to an immediate acquittal.5
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.6
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.7
Having a stern warning will not be reflected on your criminal record. Although it is also unclear as to how long a stern warning is maintained by the police and how internal 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:-
- had no legal effect and was not binding on the recipient8 and
- did not amount to a legally binding pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact.9
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.
Help in the Process of Obtaining a Stern Warning
Our lawyers can help you present your case effectively to the prosecuting authority, emphasising your remorse, the absence of prior criminal history, and focusing on rehabilitation potential.
Additionally, where required, we can help you manage the negotiation process with the prosecuting authority, working towards obtaining a stern warning as an outcome instead of more severe legal consequences.
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 .
6 Public Prosecutor v A. Karthik  SGDC 341 at .
7 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.
8 Wham Kwok Han Jolovan v Attorney-General  SGHC 324 at .
9 Id at .