On the 18th of January, in Devani vs State of Gujarat, a single judge of the Gujarat High Court handed down an interesting ruling on the constitutionality and legality of voice spectrography as an investigative technique during criminal proceedings. The writ petitioner had been charged with offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The main piece of evidence was a telephone conversation between the petitioner and the person from whom he had allegedly demanded a bribe. The Investigating Agency wanted to subject the Petitioner to a voice spectrography test, so that it could compare the two voice samples. The Petitioner challenged this.
The Court’s decision was delivered in the context of a split opinion by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, delivered in 2012, in Ritesh Sinha vs State of U.P. Justice Aftab Alam had held that in the absence of express statutory authorisation, investigative agencies could not compel an accused to undergo a voice spectrography test. Justice Ranjana Desai had disagreed. While the two judges were in apparent agreement over the proposition that voice spectrography did not violate the right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, in view of the disagreement between them, they referred the case for resolution by a three-judge bench. This bench has not yet been constituted.
In Devani, the Gujarat High Court agreed with Justice Alam and disagreed with Justice Desai, holding that the investigating authorities could not legally compel an accused to undergo a voice spectrography test. The Court based its judgment on statutory interpretation, finding no warrant for the taking of voice samples under the existing criminal procedural framework. However, it also found that the taking of voice samples did not violate Article 20(3) of the Constitution. It is to this finding that we turn first.
The Court’s examination of the self-incrimination issue took place – as it had to – in the context of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Selvi vs State (previously, on this blog, we have discussed Selvi and the right against self-incrimination under the Indian Constitution in some detail). Readers will recall that Selvi – a three-judge decision of the Supreme Court – had clarified some of the conceptual underpinnings of the right against self-incrimination that had been left open in the previous judgment of Kathi Kalu Oghad. The question in this case was how the Gujarat High Court would interpret Selvi, and how it would thread the needle between Kathi Kalu Oghad, which had held the taking of fingerprints and handwriting samples was consistent with Article 20(3), and Selvi, which had held that narco-analysis, brain mapping, and the polygraph test, were not. In other words, what was the deeper conceptual basis that underpinned the spectrum between fingerprints and narco-analysis, and where did voice spectrography fall on this spectrum?
The Gujarat High Court’s reading of Selvi was as follows: Selvi, it held, had prohibited the compulsory psychiatric examination of the accused. However, a voice spectrography test – which only involved the subject speaking something into a recorder, and subsequent analysis of his voice patterns – did not come within the ambit of “psychiatric examination“. Consequently, voice spectrography was not hit by the Selvi bar, and was therefore constitutional (paragraph 44).
It is submitted, with respect, that the High Court’s reading of Selvi is unnecessarily narrow, and is not borne out by the decision and reasoning in that case. Recall that, in the last analysis, in Selvi, the intellectual foundation of the Court’s judgment was the idea of mental privacy. In paragraph 160 of that judgment, the Court held:
“Even though the actual process of undergoing a polygraph examination or a BEAP test is not the same as that of making an oral or written statement, the consequences are similar. By making inferences from the results of these tests, the examiner is able to derive knowledge from the subject’s mind which otherwise would not have become available to the investigators. These two tests are different from medical examination and the analysis of bodily substances such as blood, semen and hair samples, since the test subject’s physiological responses are directly correlated to mental faculties. Through lie-detection or gauging a subject’s familiarity with the stimuli, personal knowledge is conveyed in respect of a relevant fact.” (Para 160)
On, in other words, the right against self-incrimination (among other things) was aimed at protecting the mental inviolability of an accused during the course of a criminal proceeding.
The Court in Selvi went on to note:
“The compulsory administration of the impugned tests impedes the subject’s right to choose between remaining silent and offering substantive information. The requirement of a `positive volitional act’ becomes irrelevant since the subject is compelled to convey personal knowledge irrespective of his/her own volition.”
“While the ordinary exercise of police powers contemplates restraints of a physical nature such as the extraction of bodily substances and the use of reasonable force for subjecting a person to a medical examination, it is not viable to extend these police powers to the forcible extraction of testimonial responses. In conceptualising the `right to privacy’ we must highlight the distinction between privacy in a physical sense and the privacy of one’s mental processes… so far, the judicial understanding of privacy in our country has mostly stressed on the protection of the body and physical spaces from intrusive actions by the State. While the scheme of criminal procedure as well as evidence law mandates interference with physical privacy through statutory provisions that enable arrest, detention, search and seizure among others, the same cannot be the basis for compelling a person `to impart personal knowledge about a relevant fact’. The theory of interrelationship of rights mandates that the right against self-incrimination should also be read as a component of `personal liberty’ under Article 21. Hence, our understanding of the `right to privacy’ should account for its intersection with Article 20(3)… a conjunctive reading of Articles 20(3) and 21 of the Constitution along with the principles of evidence law leads us to a clear answer. We must recognise the importance of personal autonomy in aspects such as the choice between remaining silent and speaking. An individual’s decision to make a statement is the product of a private choice and there should be no scope for any other individual to interfere with such autonomy, especially in circumstances where the person faces exposure to criminal charges or penalties. Therefore, it is our considered opinion that subjecting a person to the impugned techniques in an involuntary manner violates the prescribed boundaries of privacy. Forcible interference with a person’s mental processes is not provided for under any statute and it most certainly comes into conflict with the right against self-incrimination.” (Paras 190 – 193)
Consequently, Selvi went much further than simply prohibiting compelled “psychiatric examinations”. It located its decision within the framework of personal autonomy, the right to remain silent, and mental privacy.
However, it is precisely within this context that the issue of voice spectrography attains an almost intractable difficulty. If you look at the issue from one perspective, it seems clear that voice spectrography falls squarely within the Selvi prohibition. The mind is centrally involved in the act of speaking, and if “mental privacy” is to be understood in this sense, compelling a person to speak, and then using his voice to determine other relevant facts in a criminal proceeding, is certainly an invasion of mental privacy. Compelling a person to speak certainly violates their choice between speaking and remaining silent. It is certainly an interference with her “mental processes“. And finally, it does seem that what happens in a voice spectrography test is very similar to polygraph tests and brain mapping – bodily stimuli are mapped and measured. The fact that in one case, it is stimuli from the brain, and in another, voice patterns, ought not to make a difference, because – as discussed above – speaking is a direct result of mental activity.
Examined another way, however, the issue is much more complex. While speaking is a result of brain activity, the crucial thing to note in a voice spectrography test is that it is not about what the speaker is saying – that is, not about the content of her voice – but about her voice as a bodily, physical phenomenon. In this sense, voice spectrography seems much closer to fingerprints, blood samples, and DNA, than it does to narco-analysis. In a similar sense, it seems a stretch to say that the examiner is deriving knowledge from the subject’s mind. Although speaking is a result of a mental process, given that the brain is, ultimately, responsible for keeping the human body alive, every other bodily function can, ultimately, be traced back to the brain. Here, again, given that the content of what the speaker says is not at issue, it does seem that voice samples are physical phenomena, in the same sense that blood or DNA is.
What this reveals, I suggest, is that ultimately, Selvi’s neat distinction between the physical and mental, between the taking of physical samples (blood, DNA, hair swabs, fingerprints) on the one hand, and interference with mental processes and invasion of mental privacy on the other, breaks down on closer examination. It breaks down in cases such as voice spectrography, where the physical/mental binary simply loses its valence as an explanatory device.
As I had argued in my essay on Selvi, the distinction between the physical and mental in that case was drawn in an attempt to strike a balance between two models of the criminal process: the crime-control model, which seeks to remove obstacles from investigating agencies in their attempt to discover the “truth”, and the due process model, which places great stress on the fundamental rights of the accused. By limiting the right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3) to invasions of mental privacy, the Court attempted to balance the two models. A case like Devani suggests that more work needs to be done to achieve a clear and coherent balance.
Although not strictly within the scope of this blog, a word ought to be said about the second part of the judgment. The Court undertakes a thorough analysis of laws such as the Identification of Prisoners Act, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Evidence Act, all of which allow for various situations – and methods – by which investigating agencies and judges can act upon the body of the accused (compelling her to yield blood samples, DNA, sputum, hair swabs, fingerprints etc.) The Court finds that nowhere is there an express authorisation to take a voice sample, and nor can such an authorisation be read into the statutes. Consequently – and despite its misgivings on this issue as a matter of policy – the Court holds that, under the existing legal regime, compelled voice spectrography is not permissible. The Court’s analysis – from paragraphs 47 to 100 – repays close study, not simply because it is an excellent piece of statutory interpretation, but also because the Court subordinates its own sense of what might be desirable as a matter of legal policy to an autonomous reading of the existing law as it stands, and refuses to step an inch beyond the law. This is a phenomenon that has been falling distressingly out of fashion in recent years.