“We must not make a scarecrow of the law” (Shakespeare)
We live our lives beset by so many laws and regulations that even the most law-abiding of citizens will sooner or later be accused of some petty offence or other and then faced with the question “Do I fight this in court or do I just pay the fine and get on with it?”
Tread carefully here – paying a fine and getting it over and done with is one thing – burdening yourself with a criminal record for life is an entirely different kettle of fish. We discuss the expungement option, when you are at risk of acquiring a criminal record and when you aren’t, and the story of the grass seller who turned to the High Court for help after his admission of guilt fine came back to haunt him eight years later.
A criminal record, even for a minor offence from decades back, comes with very serious and lifetime consequences. It will hang around forever, just waiting to ambush you when you apply for a job, or a travel visa, or a firearm licence.
So acquiring a record inadvertently is the stuff of nightmares, and the question is whether you can land yourself in that position by paying an admission of guilt fine? The reality is that we are beset by so many laws and regulations covering every aspect of our lives that most of us have paid admission of guilt fines at one time or another. Usually it’s just to avoid having to defend ourselves in the unpredictability and delay of an over-burdened court system. Sometimes it’s the more serious matter of avoiding a stay in a police cell.
A remedy, but it’s not ideal
The remedy, once you do have a record, is to apply for “expungement” of the record to remove it from the CRC (SAPS’ Criminal Record Centre)’s database. Expungement is however only available to you after 10 years and for certain “minor offences” – plus your application will take a long time to process (“20 – 28 weeks” per SAPS). Note that some specified minor convictions fall away automatically after 10 years – ask for specific advice.
All in all, prevention is very definitely better than cure.
When are you at risk?
- You will acquire a criminal record if you are arrested, if the police open a docket and take fingerprints, and if you are thereafter convicted of a crime.
- Does that apply to admission of guilt fines? Firstly, with traffic offences find out what section of the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) is involved. Minor offences – speeding, licence offences, illegal parking and the like are normally “Section 341/Schedule 3” offences, where there is no actual prosecution and therefore no criminal record to end up in the CRC.
- Other offences however will likely be dealt with as “Section 57/57A” offences. An admission of guilt in those cases lands you with a “deemed” conviction and sentence, and until recently, that deemed conviction and sentence could well have ended up in the CRC database. In practice you would probably still have been in the clear if you weren’t actually arrested and fingerprinted, but several years ago there was talk of convictions being captured with just a name and ID number. If you want to be sure, apply for a clearance certificate – see “Applying for a Police Clearance Certificate (PCC)” on the SAPS website.
- A “Section 56 Written Notice to Appear in Court” may also give you the option of paying an admission of guilt fine to avoid appearance in court – in which event section 57 would apply as above.
- The point though is that a recent High Court decision means that any admission of guilt fine – even a section 57/57A one and even after an arrest and fingerprinting – should not lumber you with a “permanent conviction”.
In other words, the new position is that while a court-imposed conviction and sentence will end up in the CRC, an admission of guilt fine should not.
Let’s illustrate with a look at the case of the roadside grass seller…
A grass seller’s R500 admission of guilt fine comes back to haunt him
- In 2010 a roadside seller of instant grass quarreled with another grass seller about use of a particular spot on the road. The other seller laid assault charges against him, alleging he slapped her twice and pushed her.
- Arrested, detained and fingerprinted, the accused paid a R500 admission of guilt fine when given the option to do so. Per standard procedure a magistrate then “examined” the documents and the accused’s “deemed” assault conviction and sentence were entered firstly into the court’s record books and then into the CRC database.
- The accused learned of his criminal record for the first time when in 2018 he applied to become an Uber driver (a police clearance certificate being an Uber requirement).
- He turned to the High Court to set aside his conviction and sentence on the basis that he thought signing the admission of guilt was his only way of obtaining release from custody and that his rights had not been explained to him. Effectively he denied the assault, and took the chance that the State might still decide to pursue the prosecution in court.
- The Court set aside our grass seller’s conviction and sentence, characterising this type of admission of guilt as “not a verdict” but rather “essentially an agreement between the State and the accused” intended only for “trivial offences”, and involving no consideration as to “whether the accused was in fact and in law guilty of the offence”.
- The Court: “A conviction and sentence following an entry into the admission of guilt record book by the clerk of the criminal court in the magistrates’ court is not a conviction whose record is permanent” nor “to be entered in the Criminal Record System”.
The bottom line
The Court found that this accused had been pressured into admitting guilt and ordered that the Minister of Police be served with a copy of its order with a view to taking advice from the Commissioner of Police in “devising policy to address the criticism that the SAPS use arrest and detention to force vulnerable members of society who fear being locked up, to admit guilt on petty crimes using arrest and the threat of continued detention.”
But even once such a new policy emerges, be careful here and have your lawyer advise you in the slightest doubt.