5 May 2010

Narco analysis test without consent of accused illegal: Supreme Court

In a decision pronounced today authored by the Chief Justice of India himself, the Supreme Court has declared that narco-analysis tests cannot be conducted on an accused without his consent. Holding that right to personal liberty, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the protection against self-incrimination available to all persons in India in terms of Article 20(3) were all pervasive, this decision in Selvi v. State of Karnataka can as well be hailed to be one of trend-setting landmark judgments of India. In fact the Supreme Court extended this reasoning and bar to even poly-graphic tests (lie-detector tests), Brain Electrical Activation Profile (BEAP) test, and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI).

The judgment, which runs over 250 pages, the conundrum leading to the present dispute was noted by the Court in the following terms; "Objections have been raised in respect of instances where individuals who are the accused, suspects or witnesses in an investigation have been subjected to these tests without their consent. Such measures have been defended by citing the importance of extracting information which could help the investigating agencies to prevent criminal activities in the future as well as in circumstances where it is difficult to gather evidence through ordinary means. ... It has also been urged that administering these techniques does not cause any bodily harm and that the extracted information will be used only for strengthening investigation efforts and will not be admitted as evidence during the trial stage. The assertion is that improvements in fact-finding during the investigation stage will consequently help to increase the rate of prosecution as well as the rate of acquittal. Yet another line of reasoning is that these scientific techniques are a softer alternative to the regrettable and allegedly widespread use of ‘third degree methods’ by investigators."

In this background, having examined the various competing considerations and the decisions of courts from other jurisdictions, the Supreme Court concluded as under;
221. In our considered opinion, the compulsory administration of the impugned techniques violates the ‘right against self-incrimination’. This is because the underlying rationale of the said right is to ensure the reliability as well as voluntariness of statements that are admitted as evidence. This Court has recognised that the protective scope of Article 20(3) extends to the investigative stage in criminal cases and when read with Section 161(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 it protects accused persons, suspects as well as witnesses who are examined during an investigation. The test results cannot be admitted in evidence if they have been obtained through the use of compulsion. Article 20(3) protects an individual’s choice between speaking and remaining silent, irrespective of whether the subsequent testimony proves to be inculpatory or exculpatory. Article 20(3) aims to prevent the forcible ‘conveyance of personal knowledge that is relevant to the facts in issue’. The results obtained from each of the impugned tests bear a ‘testimonial’ character and they cannot be categorised as material evidence.
222. We are also of the view that forcing an individual to undergo any of the impugned techniques violates the standard of ‘substantive due process’ which is required for restraining personal liberty. Such a violation will occur irrespective of whether these techniques are forcibly administered during the course of an investigation or for any other purpose since the test results could also expose a person to adverse consequences of a non-penal nature. The impugned techniques cannot be read into the statutory provisions which enable medical examination during investigation in criminal cases, i.e. the Explanation to Sections 53, 53-A and 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Such an expansive interpretation is not feasible in light of the rule of ‘ejusdem generis’ and the considerations which govern the interpretation of statutes in relation to scientific advancements. We have also elaborated how the compulsory administration of any of these techniques is an unjustified intrusion into the mental privacy of an individual. It would also amount to ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ with regard to the language of evolving international human rights norms. Furthermore, placing reliance on the results gathered from these techniques comes into conflict with the ‘right to fair trial’. Invocations of a compelling public interest cannot justify the dilution of constitutional rights such as the ‘right against self-incrimination’.
223. In light of these conclusions, we hold that no individual should be forcibly subjected to any of the techniques in question, whether in the context of investigation in criminal cases or otherwise. Doing so would amount to an unwarranted intrusion into personal liberty. However, we do leave room for the voluntary administration of the impugned techniques in the context of criminal justice, provided that certain safeguards are in place. Even when the subject has given consent to undergo any of these tests, the test results by themselves cannot be admitted as evidence because the subject does not exercise conscious control over the responses during the administration of the test. However, any information or material that is subsequently discovered with the help of voluntary administered test results can be admitted, in accordance with Section 27 of the Evidence Act, 1872.
Some other pertinent observations made by the Bench, which are worth noting, as as under;
91. As mentioned earlier, ‘the right against self-incrimination’ is now viewed as an essential safeguard in criminal procedure. Its underlying rationale broadly corresponds with two objectives – firstly, that of ensuring reliability of the statements made by an accused, and secondly, ensuring that such statements are made voluntarily. It is quite possible that a person suspected or accused of a crime may have been compelled to testify through methods involving coercion, threats or inducements during the investigative stage. When a person is compelled to testify on his/her own behalf, there is a higher likelihood of such testimony being false. False testimony is undesirable since it impedes the integrity of the trial and the subsequent verdict. Therefore, the purpose of the ‘rule against involuntary confessions’ is to ensure that the testimony considered during trial is reliable. The premise is that involuntary statements are more likely to mislead the judge and the prosecutor, thereby resulting in a miscarriage of justice. Even during the investigative stage, false statements are likely to cause delays and obstructions in the investigation efforts.

123. The distinction between inculpatory and exculpatory evidence gathered during investigation is relevant for deciding what will be admissible as evidence during the trial stage. The exclusionary rule in evidence law mandates that if inculpatory evidence has been gathered through improper methods (involving coercion, threat or inducement among others) then the same should be excluded from the trial, while there is no such prohibition on the consideration of exculpatory evidence. However, this distinction between the treatment of inculpatory and exculpatory evidence is made retrospectively at the trial stage and it cannot be extended back to the stage of investigation. If we were to permit the admission of involuntary statement on the ground that at the time of asking a question it is not known whether the answer will be inculpatory or exculpatory, the ‘right against self-incrimination’ will be rendered meaningless. The law confers on ‘any person’ who is examined during an investigation, an effective choice between speaking and remaining silent. This implies that it is for the person being examined to decide whether the answer to a particular question will eventually prove to be inculpatory or exculpatory. Furthermore, it is also likely that the information or materials collected at an earlier stage of investigation can prove to be inculpatory in due course.

169. There are several ways in which the involuntary administration of either of the impugned tests could be viewed as a restraint on ‘personal liberty’. The most obvious indicator of restraint is the use of physical force to ensure that an unwilling person is confined to the premises where the tests are to be conducted. Furthermore, the drug-induced revelations or the substantive inferences drawn from the measurement of the subject’s physiological responses can be described as an intrusion into the subject’s mental privacy. It is also quite conceivable that a person could make an incriminating statement on being threatened with the prospective administration of any of these techniques. Conversely, a person who has been forcibly subjected to these techniques could be confronted with the results in a subsequent interrogation, thereby eliciting incriminating statements.
170. We must also account for circumstances where a person who undergoes the said tests is subsequently exposed to harmful consequences, though not of a penal nature. We have already expressed our concern with situations where the contents of the test results could prompt investigators to engage in custodial abuse, surveillance or undue harassment. We have also been apprised of some instances where the investigation agencies have leaked the video-recordings of narcoanalysis interviews to media organisations. This is an especially worrisome practice since the public distribution of these recordings can expose the subject to undue social stigma and specific risks. It may even encourage acts of vigilantism in addition to a ‘trial by media’. 
171. We must remember that the law does provide for some restrictions on ‘personal liberty’ in the routine exercise of police powers. For instance, the CrPC incorporates an elaborate scheme prescribing the powers of arrest, detention, interrogation, search and seizure. A fundamental premise of the criminal justice system is that the police and the judiciary are empowered to exercise a reasonable degree of coercive powers. Hence, the provision that enables Courts to order a person who is under arrest to undergo a medical examination also provides for the use of ‘force as is reasonably necessary’ for this purpose. It is evident that the notion of ‘personal liberty’ does not grant rights in the absolute sense and the validity of restrictions placed on the same needs to be evaluated on the basis of criterion such as ‘fairness, non-arbitrariness, and reasonableness’.

192. 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). Furthermore, the ‘rule against involuntary confessions’ as embodied in Sections 24, 25, 26 and 27 of the Evidence Act, 1872 seeks to serve both the objectives of reliability as well as voluntariness of testimony given in a custodial setting. 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.

1 comment:

Piyush Singh said...

Thank you for providing a copy of the judgment. we have been looking for it since the news flashed in the morning. It will be interesting to read it after arguing in favour of narco analysis in almost three rounds of Kerala Law Academy Constitution Law Moot Court Competition, this year. :)