The Tofan Singh Reference

Abhinav Sekhri

21 Aug 2020 11:28 AM GMT

  • The Tofan Singh Reference

    The 2013 judgment by Two Justices' in Tofan Singh v. State of Tamil Nadu [(2013) 16 SCC 31 ("Tofan Singh")] had referred two interlinked issues arising under the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 ("NDPS") to a bench of three Justices. No matter the importance of the issues — which, interestingly, even prompted a sitting Justice to plea for a speedy consideration of...

    The 2013 judgment by Two Justices' in Tofan Singh v. State of Tamil Nadu [(2013) 16 SCC 31 ("Tofan Singh")] had referred two interlinked issues arising under the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 ("NDPS") to a bench of three Justices. No matter the importance of the issues — which, interestingly, even prompted a sitting Justice to plea for a speedy consideration of the reference at one point — the Tofan Singh reference lay in cold storage. Till January 2019, that is, which is when arguments appeared to have been concluded, but no judgment ever came. Fast-forward to August 2020, and a different Three Justices' Bench appears poised to consider — and hopefully decide — the issues in Tofan Singh.

    To recap, the issues are:

    • Whether an officer of the central / state government investigating a case under the NDPS Act is a "police officer"?
    • Whether statements recorded under Section 67(c) of the NDPS Act can be treated as confessional statements, regardless of whether the officer is a police officer?
    Let's take up both of them, in turn, to flesh out what is at stake and what might be the key points to consider.
    Who is a "Police Officer"
    Section 53 of the NDPS Act makes it possible to invest officers / classes of officers from the central or state government, "with the powers of an officer-in-charge of a police station" as laid out under the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 ["Cr.P.C."]. Does this make these officers "police officers"? The Court has taken a look at this issue many times in the past, and different benches have ended up at different conclusions. Hence, the reference in Tofan Singh.
    Why does it matter whether these officers are treated as "police officers" formally? It is due to Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act 1872 ("IEA") which states that no confessions made to a "police officer" shall be proved against an accused. So, if these officers are police officers, then a confession recorded by them would be hit by the Section 25 prohibition and rendered useless as evidence.
    Provisions similar to Section 53 of the NDPS Act, and the issue of whether such empowered officers are "police officers", is something that the Supreme Court has considered in the past. Besides taking a hard look at all the previous instances where the Supreme Court specifically took up the Section 53 issue, it is likely that the arguments in Tofan Singh might turn to these more general decisions as well to help cull out the legal position. In this regard, the decisions in Raja Ram Jaiswal [AIR 1964 SC 828 (Three Justices' Bench)] and in Badku Joti Savant [AIR 1966 SC 1746 (Five Justices' Bench)] are likely to be critical.
    The so-called "Chargesheet Test" in Badku Joti Savant has proven critical on many a prior occasion when this issue of who is a police officer has come up. According to this view, an officer who is conferred with a power to file a Police Report (commonly referred to as a Chargesheet) is one who qualifies as a police officer for purposes of Section 25 IEA. A plain reading of Section 53 does not show that any express conferral of this power has been done. Rather, Section 36A(1)(d) of the NDPS Act suggests that the investigations by such officers should end with a Complaint and not a Police Report.
    In my opinion this approach is certainly plausible, but not desirable, as it ends up privileging form over substance both in terms of how we read precedent and the text of the NDPS Act itself. Let's start with precedent first. Badku Joti Savant did say that a police officer is one who can file a police report. But it did not advocate an approach that shuts its eyes to the specific statutory text in question. Rather, in Badku Joti Savant the Court paid very close attention to the specific text (Section 21 of the Central Excise and Salt Act 1944) to come to the unanimous verdict. Section 21(2) certainly said that the Excise Officer "may exercise the same powers and shall be subject to the same provisions as the officer-in-charge of a police station". But it began with a "For this purpose", thus indicating that the conferral of power was not absolute. For the Constitution Bench, this limitation proved critical (Notwithstanding that this purpose was to "inquire into the charge" against a person). For the Court, this made Section 21 obviously different from the provision in question before the bench in Raja Ram Jaiswal (Section 78 of the Bihar and Orissa Central Excise Act 1915), which did not have any such express limitations and thus correctly arrived at the conclusion that those officers under the Bihar and Orissa Act should be police officers. It bears mention that Section 78 of the Bihar and Orissa Act 1915 created a specific deeming fiction that the document filed at the end of an inquiry must be seen as a "Police Report". However, this was not the basis for deciding the issue in either Raja Ram Jaiswal, or noted at all by the Court in Badku Joti Savant
    Section 53 does not contain any such express deeming fiction which says that the document filed by the empowered officer is deemed to be a police report. At the same time, it also does not contain any limitation on the investiture of power of the kinds that troubled the Court in Badku Joti Savant. To consider such a limitation being implied by Section 36A(1)(d) is certainly possible, but arguably incorrect and unconstitutional. If Section 53 has invested certain officers / classes of officers with all powers of a regular police officer for investigating a case, without any qualifiers, then that deeming fiction should be taken to its logical conclusion and treat the two sets of officers as equal in substance. Using Section 36A(1)(d) to treat the two sets of officers as different, by allowing statements to one as being admissible but not the other, would ridicule the notion of equality and arbitrarily prejudice the set of defendants whose cases are investigated by Section 53 officers. Lastly, it is not at all necessary to read Section 36A(1)(d) as demanding complaints by empowered officers. Instead, this clause could be read as applying to all the other central / state government officers who are not empowered under Section 53.
    Section 67 Statements as Substantive Evidence
    Section 67(c) of the NDPS Act is a specific provision that permits empowered officers to examine any person acquainted with the facts of a case. The second issue posed in Tofan Singh is whether such statements can be treated as substantive evidence at trial. This issue was seen as interlinked with the first one because, if the officer recording the statement is treated as a "police officer", then the prohibition of Section 25 IEA would apply to render such statements inadmissible.
    Well, not quite. This is because of Section 53-A of the NDPS Act, which is a special rule of relevancy for NDPS cases crafted for signed statements given to empowered officers. This clause leaves it open for the trial judge to accept such statements in evidence for the truth of their contents if the judge thinks it is necessary to do so in the interests of justice (where foundational requirements of the clause are met). In such cases, I would think that the issue of whether or not we treat the concerned officer as a "police officer" is rendered redundant, as the prohibition of Section 25 IEA is being lifted by this special law.
    If this reading of the NDPS Act is correct, then the second issue in the Tofan Singh reference is largely reduced to an issue of unsigned statements under Section 67. If the officer recording the statement is treated as a police officer then, naturally, the general prohibition of Section 25 IEA would apply. But even if this is not the finding on the first issue, the Court in Tofan Singh might yet have something to say about using such statements as substantive evidence. This is because of how Section 67 of the NDPS Act is worded. Compared with what are touted as similar provisions in other laws permitting statements to come in as substantive evidence — say, Section 108 of the Customs Act, Section 50 of the PMLA, or even Section 164 of the Cr.P.C. — the statement under Section 67 is (i) not given on oath, and (ii) is given without any warning / caution administered to the accused of the consequences. As a result, statements under Section 67 NDPS Act are arguably bereft of safeguards to ensure their reliability as well as voluntariness. Especially if one takes a moment to think about the fact that a lot of these statements are tendered by persons under arrest and in police custody.
    In light of this, should trial courts be permitted to consider such statements as substantive evidence and proof of guilt? If the Supreme Court does think that this is a problem, then there are a few options available to address it. Let's flesh out two of these: First, the Court could treat unsigned Section 67 statements the same as those given under Section 161 of the Cr.P.C., and only allow them to be used for purposes of contradicting a witness during trial. Or, Second, it could perhaps push for a rule of prudence (similar to that governing accomplice evidence) which requires that trial courts may consider the Section 67 statements only where the prosecution can offer corroboration of material particulars.
    Until the text of Section 25 IEA is changed, the issue of who is a "police officer" will remain a critical one in all contexts. The reference in Tofan Singh should, hopefully, put to bed the confusion that has reigned on this point in the context of the NDPS Act — a confusion that was identified way back in 2013. However, the very specific contours of Tofan Singh and the NDPS Act would suggest that any conclusions that the Supreme Court arrives at are not going to affect the broader landscape, and the "Chargesheet Test" of Badku Joti Savant will probably remain the general statement of law. Unless, of course, the Court clarifies this position of law in a way that has a wider impact. One such way could be to perhaps set the record straight upon just what kind of statutory deeming fiction is required to treat other empowered officers as police officers. Whichever way the Court decides on this issue in Tofan Singh is bound to have an effect on the second issue placed before it—the scope of which is arguably limited by Section 53-A of the NDPS Act itself. However, it would be wrong to think that there is nothing more to be said on the evidentiary status of Section 67 NDPS Act statements. These statements leave a lot wanting on the twin prongs of reliability and voluntariness that Indian evidence law insists upon when dealing with witness testimony. The Court hopefully engages with these limitations while arriving at whatever conclusions it considers appropriate.
    Views are personal only.
    This article was first published here

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