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Clarifying the position on compositions: 

Teo Seng Tiong v Public Prosecutor [2021] SGCA 65

I. Executive Summary

Historically, certain offences not considered serious enough to come before a court could sometimes be resolved by the payment of a sum by the accused to the victim, thereby effecting a settlement agreement of sorts, and dispensing with the case expeditiously. This is known as “composition”. Today, compositions are available for a variety of offences, including certain regulatory offences, tax offences, and traffic offences.

Minor traffic offences are often the subject of compositions under section 135 of the Road Traffic Act (Cap 276, 2004 Rev Ed) (“RTA”) to enable the efficient disposition of these less serious traffic violations. While further proceedings against the accused are prohibited, this raises the question as to whether an offender’s composition record may otherwise be taken into consideration down the road as an aggravating factor in the sentencing for another offence.

Introduced under the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2019 (No. 19 of 2019) (“2019 amendments to the RTA”), section 139AA of the RTA clarified that offences compounded under the RTA can be taken into account as an aggravating factor for sentencing of another RTA offence.(1) However, an open question remained as to whether this position also applied to cases involving offences compounded under other legislation, or sentencing for non-RTA offences.

The Court of Appeal (“CA”) resolved this question in Teo Seng Tiong v Public Prosecutor [2021] SGCA 65. The CA held that a court may take into account offences compounded under the RTA as an aggravating factor when sentencing an offence under any other law. Further, the same position applied as to offences compounded under any other law when sentencing an offence under any other law. In short, offences compounded under the RTA or any other law can be taken into account in sentencing for any future offence, and may form the basis of an increase in the overall sentence of such offence.

II. Material facts

In an altercation with a cyclist in December 2018, Mr Teo Seng Tiong (“Teo”), a lorry driver, intentionally swerved his vehicle to run the cyclist off the road. The cyclist fell off his bicycle and onto the pavement. Teo only lodged a police report more than 24 hours after the incident.

Teo was charged under section 337(a) of the Penal Code (Cap 224, 2008 Rev Ed) (“PC”) for driving rashly in a manner that endangered the life of the cyclist, and under section 84(2) read with section 84(7) of the RTA for failing to make a police report within 24 hours. At trial, Teo was found guilty on both charges. He was sentenced to seven weeks’ imprisonment and a two-year disqualification on the first charge, and a $500 fine on the second charge.

In sentencing on the PC charge, the District Judge took into account Teo’s poor driving record, which included the following offences which had been compounded:

  • Numerous parking-related offences;
  • One count of failing to give way to an approaching vehicle;
  • One count of stopping a vehicle on the shoulder of an expressway;
  • One count of speeding by exceeding the maximum speed limit of his vehicle;
  • One count of careless driving;
  • One count of failing to conform to red light signal;
  • One count of failing to wear a seat belt; and
  • One count of careless driving.

Teo also had previous convictions for offences unrelated to driving, including an offence of affray for which he served a one-month imprisonment term; and an offence of voluntarily causing hurt for which he was fined.

Teo’s appeal against his conviction and sentence was dismissed by the High Court. After he completed his imprisonment term, Teo filed a Criminal Motion (“CM”) pursuant to section 397(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cap 68, 2012 Rev Ed) (“CPC”) seeking leave to refer a question of law of public interest to the CA.

III. Issues

The question posed by Teo in the CM (the “Question”) was whether a court may take into account any offence that has been compounded under the RTA as an aggravating factor in sentencing: 

(a) for an offence committed under the RTA; and

(b) for an offence not committed under the RTA without legislative intervention.       

Notably, section 139AA of the RTA (as introduced in the 2019 amendments to the RTA) answered part (a) of the Question in the affirmative. However, the CA noted that section 139AA of the RTA did not apply to Teo’s case, because his offences took place in December 2018 before section 139AA came into effect. Furthermore, Teo’s compounded driving-related offences had been taken into account in relation to a PC offence, and not an RTA offence.

The issue thus remained as to whether the current position under the RTA also applied to non-RTA offences. Teo argued that it should not, contending that the composition of an offence carried the legal effect of an acquittal unless provided for otherwise by statute. If so, it followed that it would be “perverse” to consider such an acquittal as an aggravating factor.

In response, the CA first considered two interrelated questions, before reaching its ultimate conclusion:  

(a) what is the effect of the composition of an offence and whether it amounts to an acquittal; and

(b) whether compounded offences may be taken into account as an aggravating factor for a future offence.

A. The effect of composition and whether it amounts to an acquittal 

The CA first considered the relevant provisions on composition in the CPC and RTA.(2) The CA noted that these provisions appeared to spell out different effects of composition. Specifically, sections 241(4), 242(3), and 243(5) of the CPC, as well as section 135(1A) of the RTA, which applied where the alleged offender had not been charged in court yet, only stated that “no further proceedings” were to be taken, making no mention of an acquittal.

In contrast, sections 241(5) and 242(4) of the CPC which dealt with the situation where the offence was compounded after the accused had been charged in court, provided that the court “must order a discharge amounting to an acquittal” and “such composition shall have the effect of an acquittal”.  

In short, there was debate as to whether composition amounts to an admission of guilt or whether it is an acquittal. The CA thus considered whether the apparent differences in the CPC and RTA provisions on the effect of composition were significant.

(1)           Acceptance of composition as an admission of guilt

The CA acknowledged that alleged offenders accept composition for a variety of reasons and this would not necessarily amount to an admission of guilt. However, paying the sum without protest led to at least a presumptive admission of guilt unless shown otherwise. This is because composition cannot be offered to an individual unless he is “reasonably suspected of having committed the offence”, and it is unlikely that he would pay the composition sum if he disputed the offence.

This was especially the case for traffic offences, if accepting composition would also entail incurring demerit points which could eventually result in disqualification. It would then be for the alleged offender to provide and prove the reason(s) for accepting the composition despite his innocence.

(2)             Composition as having the effect of an acquittal

When the offender had not yet been charged in court (i.e., where sections 241(4), 242(3), and 243(5) of the CPC, and section 135(1A) of the RTA applied), the CA held that there was no “acquittal” to speak of since such an order could only be made by a court. Rather, these provisions merely sought to stop further criminal proceedings for an offence once it was compounded, which had essentially the same effect as an acquittal.

Meanwhile, explicit references to “acquittal” in sections 241(5) and 242(4) of the CPC were only necessary because the alleged offender had already been charged in court.

Accordingly, compositions occurring at an early stage (before the alleged offender was charged in court) could not be regarded as having a different effect from compositions occurring after he was charged in court. In both situations, the result is the same – the alleged offender could not be charged subsequently in respect of the compounded offence. To hold otherwise would violate the doctrine of autrefois acquit preventing double jeopardy – in other words, once convicted/acquitted, a person cannot be tried again for the same offence twice.(3)

B. Compounded offences as an aggravating factor

Given that a composition was a presumptive admission of guilt while having the effect of an acquittal, the CA concluded that it was a hybrid between a conviction and acquittal. However, this should not be viewed as an “aberration”, as there are good reasons for compounding offences. To the Prosecution, compounding offences allows for the more expedient and efficient disposition of common but less serious offences. For the offender, this removes the worry of potentially being prosecuted for an offence or being imprisoned, and does not amount to a criminal record.

However, while the alleged offender cannot be subsequently charged for the compounded offence, his composition record can still be brought up in court again as part of his past conduct if he has been convicted and is being sentenced in another subsequent matter. As the Prosecution would not be seeking to revive an offence, there is no question of double jeopardy. Rather, an offender’s composition history merely forms part of his past conduct, which can be considered by the court during the sentencing process. However, whether this past conduct can form the basis of an increase in sentence for the present offence is a separate question, which the CA then turned to consider.

A composition of an offence is not a conviction in law, and thus cannot be raised by the Prosecution in its address on sentence as part of the offender’s “criminal records” under section 228(2)(a) of the CPC. However, section 228(2)(c) of the CPC allows the Prosecution to include “any relevant factors which may affect the sentence”.

An offender’s bad or impeccable driving record is, on any reasonable view, a relevant factor in sentencing him for an RTA offence. For example, a poor driving record reflecting a disregard for traffic rules and safety could raise sentencing considerations such as specific and general deterrence.

Composition offers and compounded offences can thus be highlighted by the Prosecution in its submissions on sentence as part of the offender’s driving records. In most situations, the offender is likely to accept the composition record and proceed to make his mitigation plea. However, if the offender denies the composition or asserts that he accepted the offer for reasons other than admission of guilt, the offender should adduce evidence to prove this. It would also be equally open to the Prosecution to prove that the offender committed the compounded offence anyway, if it wishes.

Accordingly, the CA concluded that part (b) of the Question was to be answered in the affirmative as well, i.e., that a court may take into consideration offences compounded under the RTA as an aggravating factor when sentencing an offence under any other law. However, whether this justified an enhanced sentence would depend on the specific facts of the case – in particular, considerations such as time and factual relevance. For example, a compounded offence committed in the distant past and/or which is unrelated to the present offence is not likely to carry much weight in sentencing.

The CA went further to hold that the same position applies for offences compounded under any other law. In other words, a compounded offence under any law can potentially be taken into consideration in the sentencing for any other offence.

Finally, it bears mention that the Traffic Police’s policy since February 2020 when issuing notices of composition has been to include a note warning recipient that previously compounded traffic offences may be taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing for future offences. In fact, the Prosecution accepted that it would only have regard to offences compounded under the RTA in sentencing for non-RTA offences where such notice had been given.(4)

IV. Conclusion

While compounding an offence has the effect of an acquittal, this is clearly not the end of the story. It would be open for the court to consider compositions down the line in the sentencing of an individual for another offence. However, whether this would amount to an aggravating factor would turn on the specific facts at hand – specifically, whether the compounded offence was related and how recently it took place.

V. Lessons Learnt

It is clear that the court has the power to make a holistic assessment in making a sentencing decision. The outcome is a sensible one, as in the usual scenario, accepting a composition offer is likely to coincide with guilt. In the rare case where the offender attempts to dispute the compounded offence retrospectively, he bears the burden of adducing evidence to show that he accepted the offer for other reasons. Nonetheless, the odds of this situation arising as regards offences compounded under the RTA are likely to be mitigated by the Traffic Police’s policy moving forward where individuals are warned that compositions can aggravate a future sentence – this is likely to incentivise individuals who wish to dispute the offence to do so at an earlier opportunity.

 

Written by: Megan Chua Yih Wen, 3rd year LLB student, Singapore Management University Yong Pung How School of Law.

Edited by: Faculty, Singapore Management University Yong Pung How School of Law.

 

Footnote

(1) Section 139AA of the RTA provides that “For the purpose of determining the appropriate sentence for an offence committed by a person under this Act, a court may take into account, as an aggravating factor, any offence that has been compounded (on or after 1 November 2019) under this Act before the date of the sentencing.”

(2) Section 241 of the CPC (entitled “Compounding offences”) read with the Fourth Schedule, applies to composition by victims of offences and requires consent of the Public Prosecutor (“PP”) for composition. Section 242 of the CPC (entitled “Public Prosecutor may compound offences”) and section 243 of the CPC (entitled “Compounding of offences under other written laws”) extend the power to compound to certain prescribed offences which do not involve specific victims (e.g., damage to public property), and offences outside the PC, respectively. Section 135 of the RTA (entitled “Composition of offences”) provides for the power to compound offences under the RTA.

(3) See article 11(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore and section 244(1) of the CPC.

(4) Notice can be given through an express statutory provision, the composition notice, or any other reasonable means.


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