Tag Archives: criminal procedure

Guest Post: The Right Against Self-Incrimination and its Discontents – II

(In this second and concluding post, Abhinav Sekhri, a Delhi-based criminal lawyer, discusses the application of Article 20(3) to persons “accused of an offence”)

Recap

Previously, we talked about how the words ‘person accused of an offence’ present in Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India have been interpreted by the Supreme Court. We saw that the Court had understood this phrase as describing a person subject of a formal accusation, akin to a FIR. This naturally created a lacuna for the time it takes for an informal accusation against one to become a formal accusation. While ordinary investigations for IPC offences may confer little investigative mettle to the Police before a formal accusation, the same is not the case in statutes creating socio-economic offences, such as smuggling. Statutes such as the Customs Act 1962, and the NDPS Act 1988 vest officers with extensive investigative powers before a formal accusation is levelled.

The Supreme Court during the 1960s consistently held that no self-incrimination could arise if persons were compelled to give evidence against themselves at these stages. I have expressed deep reservations about this approach, and in this part of my argument, I flesh out a possible alternative approach to answering the problem. While nothing would be better than an amendment to either the Constitution or the Cr.P.C. for providing clarity, we know how remote the possibility of such a non-political amendment getting tabled in Parliament is today, and must make do with innovating from the existing morass of laws. I thus propose that the phrase ‘person accused of an offence’ must be understood to include detention in custody by any authority during an investigation. I will elaborate on the benefits of this later, and require the reader to be content with just understanding my proposal for now. Simply put, if an authority seeks your detention for more than the 24-hour minimum period (before it needs to produce you for the first time before a magistrate), you necessarily must be able to exercise your right against self-incrimination.

Deepak Mahajan and a Lost Opportunity

The judicial history of interpreting Article 20(3) reflects a certain reluctance to re-evaluate basic premises and stick to formulas. The near-vehement consistency in the Supreme Court’s decisions M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra [AIR 1954 SC 300] onwards on the point is remarkable. There is not one stray decision in all those years. The scope for innovation when arguing this issue before a Division Bench in the 1990s was thus quite slim. Still, Directorate of Enforcement v. Deepak Mahajan [AIR 1994 SC 1775], is a landmark decision in its own right.

The offence in question was under the erstwhile Foreign Exchange Regulation Act 1973 [FERA], which followed in the footsteps of all socio-economic offences in vesting great investigative powers before filing of a formal accusation., including that of detention in custody [Section 35 FERA]. The Respondent here had been arrested and detained under Section 35 FERA – the issue was whether a Magistrate could remand him to judicial custody. Section 167 Cr.P.C. provided for remand by magistrates, but applied during investigation. But the Supreme Court itself had created a fiction that what officers did under the FERA and other such offences is not an “investigation”. To now apply Section 167 Cr.P.C. would mean that it was investigation, and that the person detained was a ‘person accused of any offence’ since investigation presumed formal accusation. Interestingly, the Delhi High Court held that Section 167 Cr.P.C. did not apply for these reasons.

Reading the decision, it is clear that the Supreme Court knew exactly how tricky the issue was. It reversed the conclusions of the High Court and held that Section 167 Cr.P.C. would apply to allow those arrested under Section 35 of FERA and other socio-economic offences to be remanded to judicial custody. While doing so, the Court did not extend the protection of Article 20(3) to such persons who are remanded to custody. With due respect, the basis for this decision is utter rubbish, and the Court horribly let itself down. The refusal to extend Article 20(3) was despite the admission that the “words ‘accused’ or ‘accused person’ is used only in a generic sense in Section 167(1) and (2) denoting the ‘person’ whose liberty is actually restrained on his arrest by a competent authority on a well-founded information or formal accusation or indictment.”

This was the first time in nearly 50 years that the Supreme Court had to consider the text of Section 167 Cr.P.C. together with the right under Article 20(3). The decision shows how the Court goes to absurd lengths to try and avoid this connection, where at one point it distinguishes the binding Constitution Bench decisions on Article 20(3) by saying that none of them applied to the ever-so slight issue of actual detention but only with admissibility of evidence. This is the reason why I term the decision a lost opportunity, for I argue that a far more consistent and coherent approach to Article 20(3) lies in considering it together with Section 167 Cr.P.C. and the idea of remand.

Re-Drawing Lines in Article 20(3)

The illogical approach of the Supreme Court was pushed to theoretically unbelievable limits in Deepak Mahajan where it held that persons arrested under laws such as the erstwhile FERA could even be remanded to judicial custody under Section 167 Cr.P.C. yet remain beyond the pale of Article 20(3). If nothing else, this by itself should make the reader a bit concerned about how the basic premise of Article 20(3) is being understood today. I propose a simpler alternative not located in the judicial precedent – connect the idea of remand to custody with terming someone as ‘accused of any offence’.

Why do we have a right against self-incrimination in the way we do under Article 20(3)? There is no one-size-fits-all rationale here, but several that apply. An interpretation of the right that tries to be in sync with these different claims is bound to bring a more wholesome solution to the problem. By providing this right, the legal system attempts to expel potentially unreliable evidence obtained through coercion. But protection from being compelled to incriminate oneself is also a basis to ensure protection from coercion itself, and all the necessary evils a system using coercion brings. At the same time, having an unbridled right to stay silent can naturally dent any investigation and we often see potentially sensitive legislation contain relaxations from certain legislative expressions of self-incrimination [the erstwhile Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 allowed judges to draw an adverse inference against persons refusing to tender voice samples]. Not providing the right to every person but only those accused of any offence is the Constitutional balancing act.

The fact that Section 167 Cr.P.C. is the first place in the criminal process that the word ‘accused’ finds a mention to describe the affected person is not pithy phrasing. The reason being that a request by an officer seeking further remand to custody of any person shows that at that time that there is something in the allegations against that person. Otherwise what is the need to seek further custody in the first place? It is irrelevant whether the person so detained is not ultimately proceeded against. To hold that self-incrimination should only protect such eventual accused is solely looking to the evidentiary purposes of the right and completely ignores the idea of personal protection it entails. 24 hours also protect the needs of investigation, and is a Constitutionally prescribed limit [Article 22].

Furthermore, such a statutory approach allows for a more wholesome take on the investigative and evidentiary process at large. Having begun by looking at the Cr.P.C., we must now turn to the Evidence Act 1872; Sections 25 and 27 more specifically. These provisions address two concerns that arise from my proposal from the standpoint of both prosecution and defence. If you are forced by the police to confess before expiry of 24 hours, does that render you defenceless? Section 25 negates such a conclusion, for it says that “no confession made to a police officer shall be proved as against a person accused of any offence”. This ‘person accused’ is at the trial, remember, and would cover our initial un-protected suspect. On the other hand, what investigation can the police conduct with Article 20(3)? Section 27 of the Evidence Act becomes relevant here, and allows the limited use of information if any fact is discovered consequent to such information being provided by the accused.

Conclusion

The current approach to the words ‘person accused of any offence’ in Article 20(3) established from the decision in M.P. Sharma was useful but short-sighted. It was useful because it provided a simple solution to a difficult problem. It was short-sighted for it failed to consider the problem from all angles. This became evident with the growth of a peculiar form of socio-economic offences. The interaction of the right against self-incrimination with the procedure created under these offences that have come to represent a vast section of the criminal law in India, is illogical at best and horrendous at worst leaving the right utterly redundant. I am the first to admit that my alternative setup to Article 20(3) suffers from critical flaws of design. I do consider, however, the need for other ideas imperative, and the essence of my own argument as being sound.

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Guest Post: Admissibility of Confessions made to the Police: From Exception to the Norm – I

(Previously on this blog, we have discussed Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, according to which “extraordinary laws” ostensibly meant for “extraordinary times”, characterised by concentration of power in the executive, bypassing of parliamentary oversight, and incremental erosion of procedural safeguards, gradually become “normalised” parts of the existing legal landscape. In a two-part series, Manasa Sundar Raman discusses the use of extraordinary law to achieve the gradual normalisation of confessions made to police officers, that were originally considered inadmissible under the Indian Evidence Act.)

One of the chief goals of any liberal democratic Constitution, including India’s, is to guard against the growth and abuse of police power of the state and corrosion of civil liberties. Yet, it is no secret that in the recent decades, basic constitutional guarantees have increasingly come under threat and have been justified in the name of counter-terrorism. Despite struggling to define “terrorism”, most counter-terror legislations and judgments that interpret them, comfortably place terrorism as an exceptional or extraordinary crime that justifies infringements on civil liberties that are otherwise prohibited.

Characteristically, counter-terrorism legislations give enormous and overriding powers to the executive. Further, in accordance with the extraordinary concern that is sought to be addressed by such laws, they also have extraordinary provisions in procedural aspects such as bail, arrest, detention, confessions, sentencing etc. A recurring ‘extraordinary’ feature in these statutes is the admissibility of confessions made to police during interrogation.

Such extraordinary provisions inevitably lead to constitutional concerns. However, over the years, it can be observed that the judiciary is inclined to save them, paying undue deference to the government rather than declaring them as being unconstitutional. The judgments in this regard invoke the stereotypical imagery of brutalities, fear psychosis and loss of life inflicted by terrorism. This is used as a ground in itself to undermine constitutional guarantees.

In this context, one can consider the extent of deference given to legislative wisdom by the judiciary when these statutes permit confessions made to police as being admissible in trial and are challenged for being violative of Article 20(3). It is my thesis that the judiciary, by allowing for the so-called extraordinary statutes to undermine the right under Article 20(3) without constitutional basis, has gradually aided in the erosion of the right for ‘ordinary’ situations, as well. Therefore, admissibility of confession to police officer is no longer a shocking exception, but well on its way to becoming the norm.

Right against Self-Incrimination in India

Prohibition against self-incrimination is undoubtedly one the cardinal principles of criminal law. Under Article 20(3) of the Indian Constitution, the safeguard, framed as a right, extends to all accused persons to not be compelled to be a witness against themselves.

The Article 20(3) guarantee is further codified under Sections 161, 162, 163 and 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and such guarantees are also present in statutes pre-dating the Constitution in the form of Section 25 and Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Additionally, India has also, without any reservations, ratified the ICCPR which under Article 14 provides for the right against self-incrimination “in full equality”.

The extent of the right against self-incrimination was fully recognized by the Supreme Court in Nandini Satpathy v. P L Dani. In this case, the court relied on Miranda v. Arizona, to extend the embargo against compulsion in testimony to the investigation stage as well. Further, the judgment recognises that compulsion may come in many forms i.e. not just by way of physical torture, but also in the form of psychic pressure or a coercive atmosphere. Most importantly, the decision holds the right under Article 20(3) and under the Criminal Procedure Code to be co-terminus in their protection. Thus, such strong language used by Nandini Satpathy was merely one step behind holding that provisions enabling the admissibility of confessions recorded by the police would be unconstitutional. However, we notice that subsequent judgements on Article 20(3) regress from this holding and dilute the protection altogether.

Judicial Response to Art. 20(3) challenges to Extraordinary statutes

The Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 (“TADA”) was introduced in May, 1985 as a temporary and extraordinary measure to deal with insurgent movements felt in several areas in India. However, over the years, it was notified in almost all states and became infamous as one the most abused laws.

Many provisions of the TADA, including Section 15 were challenged before a constitutional bench in Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab. Section 15 of the TADA provided that a confessional statement recorded by a police officer is admissible as evidence. In a 3-2 split, the Court upheld the section.

The judgment is prefaced with the historical background and circumstances that led to the enactment of the TADA. For a large part, the Supreme Court dwells on the legislative competence of the State to enact such a law. It then proceeds to hold the section as valid under Article 14 on the basis of the legislative classification that differentiates between ‘terrorists and disruptionists’ and ‘ordinary criminals’. Rejecting the reliance on State of W.B. v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, it reasons that classification of offences is constitutional as long as they are legislatively defined and not left to the arbitrary and uncontrolled discretion of the executive. The issue with this reasoning is that the Court refuses to dig deeper into the rationality of the legislative classification itself. Even assuming that there is an intelligible differentia between the ‘terrorists and disruptionists’ as determined by the police and ‘ordinary criminals’, the Court fails to elaborate on the rational nexus between such a difference and lesser degree of constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

Further, it holds the procedure to be just and fair under Article 21. In the reasoning for this, the majority cite a National Police Commission report that recommends that confessions made to the police to be made admissible so that it will “remove the present feeling of the police that they have been unjustly discriminated against in law”! Thereafter, once again the Court invokes the spectre of terrorism. It paints terror and disruptions as those which endanger the sovereignty and integrity of the country, the normal life of the citizens, and by linking it to the difficulty in obtaining evidence, upholds it entirely.

There are several things that are inexplicable and downright absurd in the Court’s reasoning in saving Section 15. First, it is beyond comprehension why the entire reasoning is based on Article 14 and 21 even though the Court earlier admits that Article 20(3) concerns were implicated by such a provision. There is absolutely no analysis on the extent of protection guaranteed by Article 20(3) and to what degree can it be infringed, if at all. Admittedly, the Court issues guidelines for recording of a complaint of torture by Magistrate if the accused so complains. However, it omits to state the consequence of torture on the probative value of the ‘confession’. Further, the judges limit their understanding of involuntary confessions to those made under torture. There is no mention of other methods by which a confession may be extracted such as by inducement or threats. As rightly pointed out in Nandini Satpathy, compelled testimony is not limited to those made by “physical threats or violence” alone but also as a response to “psychic torture, atmospheric pressure, environmental coercion, tiring interrogative prolixity, overbearing and intimidatory methods” as well. Therefore, there is no way for the Court to determine if the accused did in fact make the confession freely and voluntarily. Second, the judges acknowledge truth of custodial torture to obtain evidence and then shockingly, in the same breath, turn a blind eye to it by invoking the imagery of terrorists being a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.

Thus, despite powerful dissents by Justice Ramaswamy and Justice Sahai, it is unfortunate that the majority chooses to substitute constitutional analysis with rhetoric on barbarity of terrorism. The saving grace of the majority judgment is the guidelines issued by the majority such as appearance of the accused before the Magistrate and forwarding the confessional statement recording. Ostensibly, the guidelines were aimed at ensuring the voluntariness of the confession and as a protection mechanism against torture. However, this rationale is not explicitly mentioned, perhaps because it would become an implicit admission of the constitutional infirmities of the section.

The TADA was subsequently repealed but was re-incarnated as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. Section 32 of the POTA, akin to Section 15 of the TADA, allowed for admissibility of confessions made to a police officer. However, Section 32 in sub-sections (2) to (5) statutorily incorporated the guidelines issued in Kartar Singh. In PUCL v. Union of India it was argued that the since the accused has to be produced before the Magistrate within forty-eight hours, there is no reason why the police are authorised to collect confessions. The Supreme Court rejected this contention stating that a similar provision was upheld in Kartar Singh and also pointed out that it incorporates the guidelines issued therein. Once again, the Court falls into the trap of excessive deference to the determination of “necessity” by Parliament, by characterising this encroachment of a fundamental right as an issue of policy rather than principle. Moreover, just as in Kartar Singh, the Court makes no reference to the fact that the recording of confession by the police is an exceptional case, departing from the well-established rules under Evidence Act, Criminal Procedure Code and norms under Article 20(3). Thus it is uncertain from the reasoning whether the Court does view Section 32 as a justified derogation from Article 20(3) in view of terrorism or if recording of confession by police is normally allowed even for regular offences under Article 20(3).

(Manasa is a Vth year student at the National Law School of India University)

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Filed under Article 20(3), Confessions, Criminal Law and the Constitution, Criminal Procedure