Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon laid down sentencing guidelines for cigarette smugglers yesterday, saying the weight of tobacco should be used as a starting point in deciding jail terms.
He said this in reducing the jail term - from two years to 15 months - of Yap Ah Lai, a 72-year-old Malaysian man who smuggled 161.4kg of contraband cigarettes into Singapore last year. Chief Justice Menon, who heard Yap's appeal against his jail term in February, said in his written judgment that he was "troubled" by the lack of consistency in the sentences imposed by the courts for such offences.
Under the Customs Act, a first offender who smuggles more than 2kg of tobacco products faces a fine of up to 20 times the duty or tax evaded, or jail of up to three years, or both.
The Chief Justice said fines should generally not be imposed in cases where it was beyond the means of the offender to pay. And when a jail term is imposed, the key factor to consider is the weight of tobacco involved.
Under the new guidelines, smugglers may face sentences ranging from three to six months for smuggling 2kg to 50kg to21/2 to three years for more than 400kg (see box). These, he said, are the starting points in cases where the accused is a first offender, pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity and whose role is limited only to importation.
Explaining why quantity of tobacco is the primary factor, Chief Justice Menon noted that the rationale underlying the offence is first, the loss of revenue to the Government and, second, the public policy interest in discouraging consumption of harmful goods. So, the greater the amount of tobacco smuggled, the greater the effects. Chief Justice Menon said the district judge's reason for giving Yap a high sentence - because the "massive" amount of contraband cigarettes he imported "flooded the market" - was not justified. He noted that 161.4kg, comprising 7,670 packets was a small fraction of the 2.9 million packets seized last year.
He also said the district judge's approach in deciding the jail term - by calculating the fine that might have been imposed and from this, derived the jail term Yap would have served in lieu of paying the fine - was wrong.
This article was published on April 16 in The Straits Times.
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