Supreme Court: In a significant case relating to an organized crime syndicate allegedly involved in funding underworld dons, the Division Bench of Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud* and Surya Kant, JJ., upheld the impugned order of the Bombay High Court declining to quash FIRs against the accused persons.
The Court held that the stipulation under Section 18 of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA) that only the confessions made to a police officer, not below the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) are admissible in evidence will not make the confessions made to Addl. SP inadmissible. The Court said,
“The expression “rank” must be understood as a class or category which encompasses multiple posts and that the posts of SP, Addl. SP, and DCP all fall within the same rank as they exercise similar functions and powers and operate within similar spheres of authority.”
The prosecution alleged that the appellants are members of an organized crime syndicate which has engaged in a systematic course of activities for cheating members of the public by conducting the ‘Mumbai Matka1‘. The prosecution case was that what appeared to be a case of gambling at the outset, was an organized crime syndicate involved in funding underworld dons/criminal gangs by the proceeds from the Matka business.
Invocation of MCOCA
The Assistant SP, Kolhapur and a team of police personnel raided a gambling den controlled by one Salim Mulla. Consequently, an FIR was filed for offences punishable under Sections 143, 147, 149, 395, 307, 353, 332, 155, 109, 324, 323 and 427 of the Penal Code 1860, Sections 4 and 5 of the Maharashtra Prevention of Gambling Act 1887, Section 65(e) of the Maharashtra Prohibition Act 1949 and Sections 37 and 135 of the Bombay Police Act 1951.
Later on, with the approval of the competent authority Sections 3(1)(ii), 3(2), 3(4), and 3(5) the MCOCA was added to the FIR as the Investigating Officer opinioned that the accused were members of an organized crime syndicate.
Aggrieved thereby, the appellants approached the Bombay High Court with a petition for quashing the FIR, which was dismissed by the Court.
Assailing the impugned order of the High Court, the appellants raised the following questions:
a. Whether a confession recorded by an Addl. SP admissible under Section 18 MCOCA; and
b. Whether the provisions of MCOCA have been validly invoked.
Analysis and Findings
a. Whether confession made before Addl. SP are valid under Section 18 MCOCA
Section 18 MCOCA stipulates that the confessions made to — a police officer not below the rank of Superintendent of Police are admissible in evidence. The Section begins with a non-obstante clause overriding the Evidence Act because Section 25 of the Evidence Act stipulates that no confession made to a police officer shall be proved as against a person accused of an offence.
Relying on para 25 (2) of the Police Manual, the appellants contended that Addl. SP is not in the same rank as the SP; therefore, the confession made before the Addl. SP would not be admissible.
The Court opined that the reliance on para 25(2) of the Police Manual was misconceived because MCOCA is a special Act enacted with an overriding provision in Section 25. The tenability of the submission that an Addl. SP does not fit the description of an officer not below the rank of SP cannot be determined by reading into the MCOCA provisions for authorization contained either in the Police Manual (para 25(2) as noticed above) or in another statute (Section 8(2) of the Police Act). The answer to the challenge must turn on the interpretation of the provisions of Section 18(1) MCOCA itself.
Observing that Section 18(1) MCOCA uses the expression “rank” which cannot be conflated or equated with a designation or post, the Court opined that the true question should be whether the rank of the SP comprehends within it an Addl. SP?
The Court noted that a DCP is competent to record confessions under the MCOCA. Observing that if an SP or Addl. SP is transferred to the area of a Commissionerate, he/she is posted as a DCP and is competent to record the confession under the MCOCA, the Court opined that there is therefore no basis to conclude that an Addl. SP does not fulfil the description specified in Section 18(1) MCOCA as being — a police officer not below the rank of the Superintendent of Police. The Court further remarked,
“The authority which attaches to the post of a DCP to record a confession under Section 18(1) is not diluted when the posting is in a district either as an Addl. SP or, as the case may be, as an SP.”
The Court referred to Nyadar Singh v. Union of India, (1988) 4 SCC 170, wherein the Supreme Court observed that the expression “rank” in “reduction in rank” for purposes of Article 311(2) has an obvious reference to the stratification of the posts or grades or categories in the official hierarchy. It does not refer to the mere seniority of the government servant in the same class or grade or category.
Hence, the Court held that the expression “rank” must be understood as a class or category which encompasses multiple posts and that the posts of SP, Addl. SP, and DCP all fall within the same rank as they exercise similar functions and powers and operate within similar spheres of authority. The Court clarified that every person within a particular rank will not be of the same seniority. Officers of the same rank may have been in service for a different number of years. At times, this may even bear on the post to which they are appointed but their rank remains undisturbed. A difference in the seniority of a particular officer is not the same as a difference in their ranks.
b. Conditions for invocation of the MCOCA
Approval Order under Section 23(1)(a) MCOCA
The appellants contended that the provisions of the MCOCA had not been validly invoked since some of the appellants had not been named in the FIR and/or in the order granting approval under Section 23(1)(a) MCOCA.
Considering that often, limited information is available to the investigating authorities at the time of recording information about the commission of an offence; and the involvement of persons other than those named initially might come to light during the course of investigation by the police, the Court said that the very purpose of an investigation is to determine whether a crime has been committed and if so, to shed light on the details of the crime including the identity of the perpetrators. The Court expressed,
“Section 23(1)(a) MCOCA speaks of recording information about the commission of an offence of organized crime, and not of recording information about the offender.”
Therefore, the Court held that the approval order under Section 23(1)(a) MCOCA is with respect to the offence and not with respect to the offender and it need not name every accused person at the outset.
Whether Gambling an Organized Crime
Rejecting the contention of the appellants that gambling is punishable with a maximum sentence of 2 years and does not, therefore, fall within the scope of MCOCA (which requires the commission of a crime punishable with imprisonment of 3 years or more), hence the allegation of engaging in illegal gambling would not sustain invocation of the penal provisions of Section 3(2) MCOCA.
Section 2(1)(e) MCOCA indicates that persons are said to commit an organized crime when they are involved in continuing unlawful activity which means a prohibited activity which is a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment of at least three years.
The Court noted that the accused of abetting the commission of organized crime need not themselves be charged with committing a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment of at least three years. They need only be abetting those who are guilty of committing a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment of at least three years, which offence amounts to an organized crime. The definition of “abet” in Section 2(1)(a) MCOCA would be applicable in such cases. The Court observed,
“Although gambling may not, by itself, constitute an organized crime, it may be the route through which the accused are abetting the commission of organized crime.”
Hence, the Court opined that the questions of whether the appellants were in fact abetting organized crime and whether offences under the IPC would attract MCOCA are to be determined at the stage of the trial.
Requirement of More than One Charge-sheet
Rejecting another contention of the appellants was that in the preceding ten years, more than one charge-sheet has not been filed in respect of each of them, the Court held that such submission did not hold water as it is settled law that more than one charge sheet is required to be filed in respect of the organized crime syndicate and not in respect of each person who is alleged to be a member of such a syndicate. Rather, charge-sheets with respect to the organized crime syndicate are sufficient to fulfil the condition in Section 2(1)(d) MCOCA.
In the backdrop of above analysis, the Court held that the appeals were without any merit. Accordingly, the appeals were dismissed with the following directions that the appellants will be at liberty to approach the High Court for release on bail; and the evidentiary value of confessions alleged to have been made by the appellants shall be considered by the Trial Court and the mere validation of their being recorded by an officer in the rank of Superintendent of Police shall not be construed as the approval of the contents or voluntary nature of the alleged confessions by the Supreme Court.
[Zakir Abdul Mirajkar v. State of Maharashtra, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1092, decided on 24-08-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud
Advocates who appeared in this case :
Senior Counsels Amit Desai, Siddharth Luthra, Abad Ponda, V. Giri, Pradeep Rai, and ANS Nadkarni, Advocates, for the Appellants;
Senior Counsel Raja Thakare, Advocate, for the State.
*Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.
1. Where those wishing to gamble bet on numbers/playing cards, at the end of the cycle, the results are to be declared based on a random draw of numbers/playing cards, and those who correctly guess the winning digits/playing cards win while the others lose.