What is a 'caution' and does it show up on a criminal record?

"My friends and I were drinking in a park and got busted by the police. We had to give them our names and addresses and my parents just got a letter saying that I now have a caution for underage drinking. What is a caution and does it now mean I have a criminal record?"

A caution is a formal warning given by the police. Depending on a range of circumstances, police can decide to issue a caution rather than charging a person. These can include the seriousness of the crime, whether they believe a caution will deter them from committing the crime again and if they have received cautions in the past.

A caution is a written document recorded by police and entered on file, meaning the details are available to be accessed by any police officer. Only police can see this and generally it will only be revealed if you get into trouble again. There is a limit on how many cautions you can receive before being charged and having to go to court.

When it comes to alcohol and other drugs, a caution can be issued for underage drinking or the use of illicit drugs. If you are under 18 it is illegal for you to drink or have alcohol on you in a public place, like a park. If you are caught police will confiscate the alcohol and they may give you a warning or a formal caution, or you may be fined. 'Cannabis cautions' can also be issued if you are caught with a small quantity of cannabis for personal use. This will mean that rather than being charged and going to court you can be issued with a warning. Rules around cautions differ across Australia and depending on where you live, this warning may also mean you will need to attend an education session, drug counselling or treatment. 

As a caution remains in the police files, it does not get removed from your record when you turn 18. Even though it is kept on file, however, it will not result in you having a criminal record. You do not need to disclose that you have received a caution to anyone. Only police can see if you have been given a caution and it does not show up on criminal background checks. As a result, it should not have any significant effect on future employment or travel opportunities. It is important to note, however, that if you are caught breaking the law again by the police they will be aware you have been cautioned before and are less likely to be lenient. 

First published: June 2021