The issue of whether punishment fits the crime has been the flavour of the week for me with two previous posts dealing with the question of corporal punishment for vandalism.

Hot on the heels of that we have Dr Woffles Wu being fined $1000 for abetting in providing misleading information to the police in relation to a traffic offence. The facts as reported in the newspapers seem to suggest that after Woffles Wu had commited speeding offences, his elderly employee had admitted to the commission of the offences.

When I first read that I assumed that Dr Wu would have been charged under the Penal Code. The obvious provision that I had in mind was s.182 of the Penal Code.

False information, with intent to cause a public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person

182. Whoever gives to any public servant any information which he knows or believes to be false, intending thereby to cause, or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby cause, such public servant to use the lawful power of such public servant to the injury or annoyance of any person, or to do or omit anything which such public servant ought not to do or omit if the true state of facts respecting which such information is given were known by him, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine which may extend to $5,000, or with both.

The other likely provision was s.204A of the PEnal Code:

204A. Whoever intentionally obstructs, prevents, perverts or defeats the course of justice shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 7 years, or with fine, or with both.

Giving false information to the police (and to some extent obstructing the course of justice) is ordinarily treated by the judiciary as being rather serious and in the past custodial sentences have been given for such offences. I was understandably surprised (and so were other friends of mine in the legal profession) that Woffles Wu did not get a custodial sentence.

I assumed that the mitigation plea by the counsel must have been really good. Of course, plenty of speculation arose as to whether he was treated leniently because of the fact that he was a well connected person. One blogger came up with a catchy line…. “In the land of the saggy, the man with the botox syringe is king.” See:
One PAP MP, Hri Kumar, joined in the fray by lamenting the inconsistency in our sentencing regime. I am very glad that he did. We seriously need to look at our criminal laws as a whole come up with a coherent approach to sentencing. In those areas where judges are given discretion, we need a clear and transparent sentencing policy for the courts.

Something was not quite right with the sentence and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the court would have let Woffles Wu off so easily given existing sentencing precedent for similar offences. Charlie Lim Chau Lee was sentenced to imprisonment for 6 months for getting his friends to take the rap for a traffic offence committed by him. The difference in the sentencing is too stark to be dismissed as merely difference based on the facts of the individual cases.

The inevitable perception building up amongst the public is that the rich and the elite can get away with lighter punishment when compared to ordinary citizens. This is the general trend of commentary emerging on blogosphere right now. Up till this morning, I was having some difficulty reconciling the picture that was building up. I can’t imagine that our judiciary will act so inconsistently that Woffles Wu could get away with a fine.

Finally, it dawned on me when I read the AG’s Chamber’s press statement as well as the Law Minister’s comments that Woffles Wu was charged under S.81 of the Road Traffic Act and not the Penal Code.

So, it turns out that this is a case of prosecutorial discretion as opposed to judicial leniency. AGC explains in the press statement the reason for not charging Woffles Wu under s.204A. The provision was not enacted at the time that the offence had been committed. That is a valid legal position. But, of course, I can’t help but wonder why he was not charged under s.182 of the Penal Code. That was, to me, the most obvious provision for an offence such as this.

The AGC in its press release has given its reason for not proceeding under s.182:

“The charge preferred against an accused person would be calibrated to reflect the seriousness of the criminal act and the fact situation, and whether the legislation in question provides a specific provision dealing with the criminal act or whether reliance has to be placed on general legislation such as the Penal Code. On the facts of this case, as there was no major accident or injury, it was considered appropriate to proceed under s 81(3) of the Road Traffic Act rather than invoke the general provisions of the Penal Code, such as s 182.”

Firstly, I accept the AGC’s position on s.204A. But, I find it hard to accept the position taken in relation to s.182. I am not convinced that the lack of injury should have been considered. The gravamen of the offence involving giving of false information is the falsity of the information and deliberately misleading public officials in their administration of justice. False information could have been given in relation to a littering offence. That does not detract from the seriousness of the fact that false information was given in the first place. The fact that there was no injury involved should not have been decisive in the decision not to prosecute under s.182 of the Penal Code.

I am pretty sure that if the charge was under s.182, the judge would have imposed a custodial sentence. I will cut some slack to the prosecution here though. Making a decision as to the offence to be charged is not an easy one and it is inevitable that tough decisions have to be made. It is unfortunate that the prosecution chose to charge Woffles Wu under the Road Traffic Act as it has sent a very wrong signal to the public. Too many people are now under the impression that the rich can get away with a light sentence. I am sure that this factor did not figure at all in the AGC’s deliberation. But, this is the perception that has arisen.