The Supreme Court, in a judgment delivered last month, has held that where a claim is made before the court that the property does not belong to the person from whom it was seized, Section 452 of the CrPC does not mandate that its custody should be handed over to the person from whose possession it was seized, overriding the claim of genuine title which is asserted on behalf of a third party.
Four accused were charged for theft of 10,285 kg of copper wires and 62 lead sleeves from a BSNL godown. The accused had allegedly sold the material to Surya Metals. In the year 1992, interim custody of the seized alloy moulds was handed over by the magistrate to the BSNL in pursuance of the provisions of Section 451 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
After the accused were acquitted in 1999, the proprietor of Surya Metals filed an application under Section 452 of the CrPC seeking release of the alloy moulds. The magistrate declined to grant custody of the seized material and relegated him to prove its title before a competent civil court. The Sessions Court, in appeal, held that it was for the proprietor to assert its title and prove it before the civil court.
These findings got reversed by the high court which held that though interim custody was handed over to the BSNL, it did not assert any right over the property, nor did it deny the right or title of the proprietor and thus there was no reason to relegate him to a civil court. The high court bench had relied on a decision of apex court in N. Madhavan vs. State of Kerala. BSNL assailed this order before the apex court.
The bench comprising Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice MR Shah observed that in Madhavan case, there was no dispute that the weapon of offence belonged to the accused from whom it had been seized.
Explaining the said judgment, the bench said: "Normally the Court would, following the discharge or acquittal of the accused, restore the property to the person from whose custody it was taken. A departure from this rule of practice is not lightly made when there is no dispute or doubt that the property which was seized from the custody of the accused belongs to him. These observations in the decision of this Court in Madhavan (supra) clearly indicate that ordinarily the person from whom the property was seized would be entitled to an order under Section 452, when there is no dispute or doubt that the property belongs to him. It is only when the property belongs to the person from whom it was seized that such an order can be passed."
The bench further observed: "In our view, the claim which has been made by the first respondent to the title to the goods is seriously in dispute. Hence it was but appropriate and proper that such a claim be agitated before the competent civil forum. The view of the Magistrate was correct. In the absence of such an adjudication, the custody of the goods, which have been seized, should continue to be with the appellant. In passing this order, we are also guided by the fact that as noticed in the order of the Magistrate, the appellant had indicated through its evidence that the goods were stolen from its godown and were of nature which were not capable of being acquired from the open market."
Taking into account the fact that these goods were lying in the BSNL godown for 26 years, the court directed the BSNL to preserve a sample of them, and also granted permission to sell the goods by auction and to maintain an account of the money which has been realised from the sale. "The amount which is realised by the appellant shall abide by such directions as may be passed by the competent civil court in the suit which may be instituted by the first respondent," the court added.
Read the Judgment Here