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The Meghalaya High Court recently clarified that a Magistrate’s discretionary powers to pass interim orders for the release of seized vehicles has not been taken away by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order passed in the South Garo Hills coal mining case.
Following the NGT’s proposal in January this year, an NGT-appointed Committee had directed that any vehicles found to be involved in illegal mining or transportation may be seized. Pertinently, such seized vehicles could only be released by the District Magistrate after recovering damages to the extent of 50 percent of the showroom price of the vehicle.
The NGT had passed the order while dealing with the issue of illegal and unscientific Rat Hole coal mining in South Garo Hills, Meghalaya.
Citing this direction, the police had refused to release two vehicles seized on suspicion that they were loaded with illegally obtained coal. In the case of one of these vehicles, a plea was also made before the Chief Judicial Magistrate citing Section 451 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) for the release of the vehicle.
Section 451, CrPC enables the Court to pass an order for interim custody of seized property pending the conclusion of inquiry or trial. A Criminal Court while making an order of interim custody is empowered to prima facie determine whether the claimant of the property seized was involved in the commission of the crime s/he is accused of. The idea is to ensure that where the property is seized by the police, it should not be retained in the custody of the Court or of the police for unduly long time.
However, in this case, the Magistrate declined to entertain the plea in view of the restrictions imposed by NGT-appointed Committee on the release of seized vehicles. Notably, a circular to this effect was also issued on January 31, 2019 by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Meghalaya and the Head of Forest Force.
The case, therefore, moved to the High Court. Chief Justice Ajay Kumar Mittal set aside the lower court’s dismissal, observing that there was nothing in the NGT order or in the restrictions issued by the NGT’s committee to indicate that Section 451, CrPC would no longer apply. As noted in the order,
“The order of the Tribunal dated 04.01.2019 and the report of the Committee in its seventh meeting held on 11.01.2019 nowhere carried any directions that the Judicial Magistrates/Criminal Courts shall not release the vehicles where they have been seized carrying illegal coal. In other words, the order of the Tribunal dated 04.01.2019 and the proceedings of the Committee dated 11.01.2019 would not take away the power and jurisdiction of the Magistrate/Criminal Court to adjudicate on the issue of release of seized vehicles under Section 451 CrPC.”
While this is the case, the Judge also noted that the Supreme Court has already dealt with similar issues before in State of Madhya Pradesh & ors v. Madhukar Rao. In that case, the Court found that provisions concerning the seizure of property in Section 50 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 would be no impediment on the power for interim release of the seized vehicles under Section 451, CrPC by the Judicial Magistrate.
Further, the Court also reiterated the principles to be borne in mind when Section 451, CrPC is invoked, as noted in the Supreme Court case of Sunderbhai Ambalal Desai v State Of Gujarat. The Court cited this case to observe that,
“… the Criminal Court/Magistrate ought to exercise power expeditiously and judiciously as it would serve various purposes, namely,
‘1. owner of the article would not suffer because of its remaining unused or by its misappropriation;
2. court or the police would not be required to keep the article in safe custody;
3. if the proper panchnama before handing over possession of the article is prepared, that can be used in evidence instead of its production before the court during the trial. If necessary, evidence could also be recorded describing the nature of the property in detail; and
4. the jurisdiction of the court to record evidence should be exercised promptly so that there may not be further chance of.'”
Bearing these principles in mind, the High Court opined that the petitioners, in this case, were entitled to make their case for interim custody of the seized vehicle under Section 451, CrPC before the Magistrate. The matter was thus remanded back to the Magistrate for fresh consideration. The High Court held,
“It is, thus, concluded that the Judicial Magistrate/Criminal Court has failed to exercise the jurisdiction vested under Section 451 CrPC…
… In view of the discussion above and conclusion arrived at, the said Circular dated 31.01.2019 shall be ineffective while adjudicating petition under Section 451 CrPC by the Judicial Magistrate/Criminal Court where the trial Magistrate shall afford an opportunity to the claimant-petitioner to prima facie establish his claim of innocence and non-involvement in the commission of the offence/crime.“