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Making room for coercion

The Supreme Court’s verdict on confession of the accused is controversial.

Making room for coercion

In a surprising judgment with wide ramifications, the Supreme Court, in a two-judge bench decision, has overturned its longstanding jurisprudence on the issue of inadmissibility of confession by accused in the police custody. In a recent case of criminal appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the accused regarding the offence of dacoity and murder under Section 396, Indian Penal Code simply on the basis of the confession of the accused in police custody, which otherwise is inadmissible in the Court.

While dealing with the contention in the admissibility of the accused's confession, the Supreme Court held that "The case in hand, before looking at the confessional statement made by the accused-appellant in the light of Section 27 of the Evidence Act, may be taken into the fold for limited purposes. From the aforesaid statement of the appellant, it is clear that he had explained the way in which the accused committed the crime and shared the spoils. He disclosed the fact that Munna Manjhi was the Chief/Head of the team of assailants and the crime was executed as per the plan made by him. It also came to light by his confession that the accused broke the doors of the informant's home with the aid of heavy stones and assaulted the inmates with pieces of wood (sticks). He categorically stated that Rampati Manjhi and he were guarding outside, while other accused were committing the theft. The recoveries of used polythene pouches of wine, money, clothes, chains, and bangle were all made at the disclosure of the accused which corroborates his confessional statement and proves his guilt. Therefore, the confessional statement of the appellant stands and satisfies the test of Section 27 of the Evidence Act."

Thus, the Apex Court in one stroke made the police confession admissible and upheld the conviction of the accused under Section 396, IPC.

It is noted that inadmissibility of confession made by an accused to a police officer, or in police custody has been the cornerstone of the fundamental right to fair trial guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The only part of the confession, which is admissible in Court is what is stated in Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, i.e., only those facts that result in the discovery of incriminating materials against the accused, including the weapon, or documents, etc. No other statement would be admissible in the Court of law. The Supreme Court in the present case relied heavily on the statements of the accused in police custody, which did not meet the criteria laid down in Section 27. Section 27 is limited to facts resulting in discoveries or recoveries of incriminating materials and no facts in the nature of narrative statements reflecting the alleged culpability of the accused, or describing the alleged offence, would fall within the purview of Section 27. The Court is incorrect in its observation that discovery of any fact concerning the alleged offence would also be admissible, without resulting of any discovery.

It is well known that the police routinely torture and use third-degree methods to extract confessions from the accused persons in order to implicate innocent persons, and Sections 25 and 26 of the Indian Evidence Act provide a bulwark against such misuse of police power. The only exception remains in Section 27. The Supreme Court, in numerous cases, has emphasised on the protection of the accused from torturous police methods and to retain the sanctity of evidentiary procedures. It is highly problematic that the Court in the present case has overlooked such binding precedents and given legitimacy to the much-criticised police machinations.

It is hoped that the judgment is overruled very soon, and the sanctity of criminal procedure is restored, otherwise, it would create havoc in the prosecution and trial of criminal cases in India. IPA

(The author is an Attorney. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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