Supreme Court: In a 2:1 verdict, the bench of RF Nariman, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee, JJ has held that
- That the officers who are invested with powers under section 53 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act) are “police officers” within the meaning of section 25 of the Evidence Act, 1872, as a result of which any confessional statement made to them would be barred under the provisions of section 25 of the Evidence Act, and cannot be taken into account in order to convict an accused under the NDPS Act.
- That a statement recorded under section 67 of the NDPS Act cannot be used as a confessional statement in the trial of an offence under the NDPS Act.
Here are the key takeaways from the judgment that runs into 308-pages.
Nariman, J (for himself and and Sinha, J)
NDPS Act is to be construed in the backdrop of Article 20(3) and Article 21
Several safeguards for maintaining the balance between the power of the State to maintain law and order, and the fundamental rights, are contained in the NDPS Act, which is of an extremely drastic and draconian nature. Hence, the interpretation of a statute like the NDPS Act must be in conformity and in tune with the spirit of the broad fundamental right not to incriminate oneself, and the right to privacy.
“Statutes like the NDPS Act have to be construed bearing in mind the fact that the severer the punishment, the greater the care taken to see that the safeguards provided in the statute are scrupulously followed.”
Confessions under Section 25 of the Evidence Act
- Section 25 is to be viewed in contrast to section 24, given the situation in India of the use of torture and third-degree measures. Unlike section 24, any confession made to a police officer cannot be used as evidence against a person accused of an offence, the voluntariness or otherwise of the confession being irrelevant – it is conclusively presumed by the legislature that all such confessions made to police officers are tainted with the vice of coercion.
- The interpretation of the term “accused” in section 25 of the Evidence Act is materially different from that contained in Article 20(3) of the Constitution. The scope of the section is not limited by time – it is immaterial that the person was not an accused at the time when the confessional statement was made. Whereas a formal accusation is necessary for invoking the protection under Article 20(3), the same would be irrelevant for invoking the protection under section 25 of the Evidence Act.
- Section 26 of the Evidence Act extends the protection to confessional statements made by persons while “in the custody” of a police-officer, unless it be made in the immediate presence of a Magistrate.
Section 67 of the NDPS Act vis-à-vis Sections 161 to 164 of the CrPC
“Enquiry” in section 67 is not same as “investigation”
Section 67 is at an antecedent stage to the “investigation”, which occurs after the concerned officer under section 42 has “reason to believe”, upon information gathered in an enquiry made in that behalf, that an offence has been committed.
“Examination” under Section 67 cannot be equated “statement” under Section 161 CrPC
Under section 67(c) of the NDPS Act, the expression used is “examine” any person acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case. The “examination” of such person is again only for the purpose of gathering information so as to satisfy himself that there is “reason to believe” that an offence has been committed. This can, by no stretch of imagination, be equated to a “statement” under section 161 of the CrPC.
Availability of safeguards under Sections 161 to 164 of the CrPC to the accused
Under section 163(1) of the CrPC, no inducement, threat or promise, as has been mentioned in section 24 of the Evidence Act, can be made to extort such statement from a person; and if a confession is to be recorded, it can only be recorded in the manner laid down in section 164 i.e. before a Magistrate, which statement is also to be recorded by audio-video electronic means in the presence of the Advocate of the person accused of an offence. This confession can only be recorded after the Magistrate explains to the person making it that he is not bound to make a confession and that, if he does so, it may be used as evidence against him. The Magistrate is then to make a memorandum at the foot of the record that he has, in fact, warned the person that he is not bound to make such confession, and that it may be used as evidence against him. Most importantly, the Magistrate is empowered to administer oath to the person whose statement is so recorded. Hence,
“It would be remarkable that if a police officer, properly so-called, were to “investigate” an offence under the NDPS Act, all the safeguards contained in sections 161 to 164 of the CrPC would be available to the accused, but that if the same police officer or other designated officer under section 42 were to record confessional statements under section 67 of the NDPS Act, these safeguards would be thrown to the winds.”
Can an officer designated under Section 53 of the NDPS Act be said to be a Police Officer
A “police officer” does not have to be a police officer in the narrow sense of being a person who is a police officer so designated attached to a police station. In a series of judgments, a broad view has been accepted, and never dissented from, that
“… where a person who is not a police officer properly so-called is invested with all powers of investigation, which culminates in the filing of a police report, such officers can be said to be police officers within the meaning of section 25 of the Evidence Act, as when they prevent and detect crime, they are in a position to extort confessions, and thus are able to achieve their object through a shortcut method of extracting involuntary confessions.”
It was further held that to arrive at the conclusion that a confessional statement made before an officer designated under section 42 or section 53 can be the basis to convict a person under the NDPS Act, without any non obstante clause doing away with section 25 of the Evidence Act, and without any safeguards, would be a direct infringement of the constitutional guarantees contained in Articles 14, 20(3) and 21 of the Constitution of India.
Banerjee, J (Dissenting)
“A crime under the NDPS Act is a crime against society and not just an individual or a group of individuals. While the safeguards in the NDPS Act must scrupulously be adhered to prevent injustice to an accused, the Court should be vigilant to ensure that guilty offenders do not go scot free by reason of over emphasis on technicalities. Substantial justice must be done. Every piece of evidence should be objectively scrutinized, evaluated and considered to arrive at a final decision.”
- Any statement made or document or other thing given to an authorised officer referred to in Section 42 of the NDPS Act or an officer invested under Section 53 with the powers of an Officer in Charge for the purpose of investigation of an offence under the said Act, in the course of any inquiry, investigation or other proceeding, may be tendered in evidence in the trial of an offence under the said Act and proved in accordance with law.
- A statement recorded under Section 67 of the NDPS Act can be used against an accused offender in the trial of an offence under the NDPS Act.
- When a statute has drastic penal provisions, the authorities investigating the crime under such law, have a greater duty of care, and the investigation must not only be thorough, but also of a very high standard. There are inbuilt safeguards in the NDPS Act to protect a person accused of an offence under the said Act, from unnecessary harassment, or malicious or wrongful prosecution.
- If the provisions of the Cr.P.C were to apply to investigations under the NDPS Act, it would not have been necessary to invest any officer under the NDPS Act with the powers of an Officer in Charge of a Police Station, for the purpose of investigation of an offence under the NDPS Act, by notification in the Official Gazette. The provisions of Section 50(5) and 51 of the NDPS Act would also not have been necessary.
- Section 53A covers any statement made and signed by any person, before any officer empowered under Section 53 for the investigation of offences, during the course of any proceedings by such officer, under the NDPS Act, be it an inquiry or investigation. This provision makes it abundantly clear that the principles embodied in Sections 161/162 of the Cr.P.C have no application to any inquiry or other proceeding under the NDPS Act, which would include an investigation.
- The NDPS Act, being a special statute, and in any case a later Central Act, the provisions of the NDPS Act would prevail, in case of any inconsistency between the NDPS Act and the Evidence Act. The Evidence Act would however apply to a trial under the NDPS Act in other respects, unless a contrary intention appears from any specific provision of the NDPS Act. The previous statement of a witness, even if admissible in evidence cannot be used against the witness unless the witness is confronted with the previous statement and given an opportunity to explain.
- The principles of Section 163 of the Cr.P.C. are implicit in the provisions of the NDPS Act relating to inquiry and investigation though the said Section may not apply to such inquiry or investigation. This is because the bar of Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India has to be read into every statute in spirit and substance. There can be no question of obtaining any statement by any inducement, promise or threat.
- The powers of a police officer are far greater than those of an officer under the NDPS Act invested with the powers of an Officer in Charge of a Police Station for the limited purpose of investigation of an offence under the NDPS Act. The extensive powers of the police, of investigation of all kinds of offences, powers to maintain law and order, remove obstruction and even arrest without warrant on mere suspicion, give room to police officers to harass a person accused or even suspected of committing an offence in a myriad of ways. The police are, therefore, in a dominating position to be able to elicit statements by intimidation, by coercion, or by threats either direct or veiled.
“The powers of NDPS officers being restricted to prevention and detection of crimes under the NDPS Act and no other crime, they do not have the kind of scope that the police have, to exert pressure to extract tailored statements.”
- Officers under the NDPS Act, invested under Section 53 with the powers of an Officer in Charge of a Police Station, for the purpose of investigation of an offence under the NDPS Act, do not exercise all the powers of police officers. They do not have the power to file a police report under Section 173 Cr.P.C which might be deemed a complaint. There is no provision in the NDPS Act which requires any officer investigating an offence under the said Act or otherwise making an inquiry under the said Act to file a report. Officers under the NDPS Act not being police officers, Sections 161/162 of the Cr.P.C have no application to any statement made before any officer under the NDPS Act, in the course of any inquiry or other proceedings under the NDPS Act.
- There can be no doubt that the mandatory provisions of the NDPS Act to ensure fair trial of the accused must be enforced. However, over-emphasis on the principles of natural justice in drugtrafficking cases can be a major hindrance to the apprehension of offenders. In offences under the NDPS Act, substantial compliance should be treated as sufficient for the procedural requirements, because such offences adversely affect the entire society. The lives of thousands of persons get ruined.
[Tofan Singh v. State of Tamil Nadu, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 882, decided on 29.10.2020]