Pubdate:  Sun, 1 Mar 1998
Source: Independent on Sunday 
Contact:  

BUSTED? YOU CAN STILL AVOID A CRIMINAL RECORD 

But Steady Nerves Are Required To Refuse A Caution, Writes Graham Ball

This year, more than 40,000 people will be cautioned for cannabis offences,
but many could escape with a lesser charge.

The increased use of cautions is not restricted to drugs offences. Its
purpose is to avoid wasting police and court time on petty offenders. So
how does the system work in practice and what should you do if cautioned? 

A serving police officer, whose identity is known to the IoS but cannot be
named, has revealed the truth about cautions. The officer says a caution is
a contract which most offenders accept without reading the small print. 

What is a caution? 

A caution is a criminal conviction of limited duration. Acceptance
indicates that the individual has waived his or her right to a defence and,
in return, the state waives its right to punish. A caution is recorded on
the police national computer and remains there for five years (three for
juveniles). This can have an adverse effect on applications for certain
jobs, university places and travel visas to some countries. 

Do you have to accept a caution? 

No. A caution is not a pre-requisite to release. It requires the prisoner
to actively acknowledge guilt. But once it has been decided that a caution
is the most appropriate way of dealing with an offence, the police cannot
revert to a more serious charge.

The decision to caution is not arbitrary. The arresting officer must refer
to the police Case Disposal Manual, which awards points for factors of an
offence - attempts to avoid arrest, intent to supply etc. The points are
added up and it is this tally, not the whim of an officer, that dictates
how a case is dealt with. 

If the points equate to a caution, they cannot be pushed up the scale to a
charge simply because you decline to accept culpability. To accept a
caution, you must accept guilt and your acceptance or rebuttal can have no
bearing on how the law perceives you should be dealt with. 

Should I accept the caution and have done with it?

For some the answer is yes: if you can live with a criminal conviction, and
do not intend to emigrate or apply for a position from which a criminal
conviction would disqualify you. But everyone should consider the matter
carefully. A caution will ensure that you are charged with the offence if
you are arrested again.

What will happen if you refuse? 

If you refuse, the law ordains that you must be given a Formal Warning or
that the case be No Further Actioned. A Formal Warning does not require
your consent and you are not required to sign for it. It is recorded
locally only and will have no influence on how you are dealt with at a
later date in court. It does not establish your guilt and it is not a
conviction. However, if you decide to play thistrump card, you would be
well advised to have a solicitor present when the caution is offered.