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Beyond Innocence: Unravelling the Constitutional Implications of Acquittal Categorization in India

 Sonsie Khatri and Tresshaa Dutt


Abstract

 

This paper scrutinises the judicially created categorization of acquittals into "honourable" and "technical" within Indian criminal jurisprudence, a distinction not recognized by the Criminal Procedure Code. It examines such categorization on the touchstone of India’s constitutional ethos as well as international human rights obligations under international conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965, that grant validity to such a categorization are also utilised to undertake such an analysis.

 

The authors allege that the categorization not only fails to meet the test of reasonable classification, but also violates the presumption of innocence that is extended to anyone charged with a criminal offence. Additionally, the use of such categorization even by administrative tribunals is problematic as it muddles the doctrine of separation of powers. Overall, the categorization is decried as unconstitutional and contrary to the human rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution and International Conventions.

 

The Categorisation of Acquittals

 

The CrPC defines acquittal under Section 232[1], and it creates no distinction between an acquittal that is “honourable” or merely “technical.” The courts created this distinction, admittedly after taking inspiration from extra-judicial tribunals and martial courts.[2] The Supreme Court has defined an honourable acquittal as one where “the accused is acquitted after full consideration of prosecution evidence and that where the prosecution had miserably failed to prove the charges levelled against the accused.[3]Au contraire, a technical acquittal has been defined as one where the accused is not exonerated on merits but rather due to some limitations, such as a trial being vitiated due to lack of sanction as required to try a public servant under Section 197 of the CrPC.[4]

 

In a catena of judgments,[5] the courts have distinguished acquittals based on whether the individual was acquitted after a thorough analysis of all evidence, or a technical error/failure on the part of the prosecution to demonstrate his guilt. Not only have the courts utilized such a distinction, but they have also declared that a technical acquittal will not entitle an accused to reinstatement to service.[6]

 

 

 

 

The Test of Reasonable Classification

 

To fulfill the test of reasonable classification, the categorization must be founded on an intelligible differentia and have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by it[7]. The test regulates not just substantive law, but the law of procedure as well.[8] It demands that any differentiation must be intelligible and based on readily apparent distinctions.[9]

 

The categorization fails to meet the requirement of intelligibility, as is evidenced by the court’s admission that it is “hard to define” what is precisely meant by an honorable acquittal[10]. This incertitude is strengthened by the fact that the courts have themselves diluted the requirement of what constitutes an honorable acquittal. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has stated that an acquittal on mere benefit of doubt is still an honourable acquittal.  This further muddles the definition of an honourable acquittal from one granted due to the miserable failure of the prosecution. 

 

When it comes to the miserable failure requirement itself, no definition or standard of what constitutes “miserably fail” is given. The classification fails to provide equal protection to individuals who have been technically acquitted. This is despite the fact that they have been exonerated by the Court, just like those whose acquittals are honourable. Only those acquitted honourably are deemed eligible for government posts, while the rest are seen with stigma and suspicion despite having been handed a clean chit by the court. It treats similarly placed individuals differently by virtue of an arbitrary classification.

 

Despite this, there are arguments to be made in favour of such categorisation. It may be further said that a rational nexus behind it may help in differentiating from the cases where individuals are proven not to be guilty against the acquitted ones, for instance, those who are acquitted on legal technicalities or the grounds of procedural errors. With the categorization of acquittals, the legal system would ensure that those who are acquitted on account of some lapses would have the space where their innocence is upheld, while those who are really innocent would not face being stigmatized or brought under suspicion unnecessarily. The defense has also been on the ground that an employee's character is most important in uniformed service. It is, however, held that under the given circumstance of the country where employment opportunities are so scarce, and therefore such employment requires good moral character, categorization forms valid considerations for administrative bodies to reinstate employees under their purview. And it rightfully can reinstate only those employees who have been honorably acquitted and not otherwise if he so wishes.

 

This still fails to be a satisfactory argument in defense of categorization due to the fact that certain individuals who may be innocent may not even get the chance for the court to go into the merits of their case and maybe let off on some technicality before that. They shall suffer as there is no mechanism to turn a technical acquittal into an honourable one.

 

Lack of Effective Remedy- “Reasonable Doubt” v. “Benefit of Doubt”

 

The right to appeal a decision is an inalienable part of the right to fair trial[11] and the same cannot be curtailed[12]. This has been recognised by international conventions such as the UDHR[13] and ICCPR[14]. Article 8 of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

 

The court in M. Krishnan Vs. The State of Tamil Nadu[15] has held that an accused cannot go for an appeal seeking to change his acquittal into honourable acquittal. This is problematic since a technical acquittal may not necessarily reflect the accused's innocence. Without an avenue for appeal, there is no opportunity to correct a potentially unjust technical acquittal, which can leave a cloud of suspicion over the acquitted individual, thereby affecting his employment prospects, social standing etc. The same shall violate his right to appeal under the Constitution, and right to effective remedy under the UDHR, and ICCPR.

 

Similarly, in Tara Prasad Sharma v. State of Sikkim [16], as recently as 2021, the Sikkim High Court dismissed a petition filed in order to continue on the post of Civil Judge-cum-Judicial Magistrate despite acquittal, on the grounds that the acquittal wasn’t “honorable.” The court even went at length to differentiate between the different kinds of acquittals on the basis of precedents despite no statutory backing. While considering the ruling in Ashutosh Pawar v. High Court of Madhya Pradesh,[17] the court therein held that “mere” acquittal (making reference to technical acquittal) is not enough and that the view of the court depends on the nature of the offense one is charged with. The petition was held meritless.

 

The lack of an appellate mechanism or the presence thereof is further muddled by the fact that in one instance, the Madras High Court in E. Kalivarathan vs. The State Rep. had allowed a revision application filed by a petitioner seeking to remove the adverse findings in the order made by the trial court wherein he was acquitted by extending the “benefit of doubt” even though there was no evidence to prove his guilt[18]. The M. Krishan Judgement was never formally overruled.

 

Therein, the Court discussed the permissibility and grounds of filing a revision petition against the characterization of acquittals and observed that such petitions are maintainable for correction or challenging the findings, which could have adverse implications against the acquittal of the individual. In fact, it was opined that being acquitted by "giving the benefit of doubt" carries different weight and might impact his life, suggesting that not all acquittals are equal either in the opinion of society or for the purpose of employment. This decision confirmed the argument of the categorization of acquittals as having an impact on the dignity and social standing of the person. The already high social standing is thus raised to the level of constitutional and human rights concern, even if such categorization was not mentioned in the legal statutes.

 

Presumption of Innocence

 

In Manu Sharma v. NCT[19], the Delhi High Court has recognized that Article 21 of the Constitution ensures the right to fair procedure and that a destruction of the presumption of innocence of the accused would go against it. Subsequently, A Constitution Bench expressed, in clear words, that the presumption of innocence principle is a part of the rule of law under Article 14 and the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21[20].

 

It is thus evident that the presumption of innocence forms the basis of Indian criminal jurisprudence[21]. The Indian Evidence Act affirms this by stating that the burden of proof lies on the prosecution[22].

 

Apart from obligations on India due to our domestic laws, The Universal Declaration on Human Rights[23] (hereinafter UDHR) and ICCPR[24] (hereinafter ICCPR), international conventions that India is party to, both provide that “everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.” Over the years, the Supreme Court of India has consistently recognised that principles in the UDHR and ICCPR form part of India's Constitutional ethos, and that India has an international commitment to follow such conventions[25].

 

The concept of "honourable acquittal" can be seen as undermining this fundamental principle by implying that there are varying degrees of innocence. It suggests that some acquittals are more legitimate or honourable than others, potentially stigmatising individuals who have been acquitted differently. The classification assumes a trial is an exercise where the accused must establish his innocence, rather than correctly characterising a trial as an exercise where the prosecution has the duty to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.

 

The categorisation adversely affects the employment prospects of those “technically acquitted” as can be seen in cases where the courts have held only those honourably acquitted can join the army[26], police[27] or other governmental posts. It assumes guilt even after exoneration and attaches a reverse burden of proof. Such a presumption of guilt is displayed in the Supreme Court’s findings that “If a person is acquitted or discharged, it cannot always be inferred that he was falsely involved or he had no criminal antecedents.”[28]

 

Doctrine of Separation of Powers

 

The doctrine of separation of powers ensures there is no encroachment of powers by any organ in a constitutional democracy. The doctrine is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.[29] There is lack of clarity and jurisprudential basis about the meaning of honourable and technical acquittal. Upholding the power of administrative bodies through departmental proceedings to reinstate only persons acquitted honourably gives them the power to subjectively determine when an acquittal is legitimate or technical, despite the matter already having been adjudicated by a court.

 

Once, the petitioner has been given acquittal by the trial court only a court of appeal should be empowered to adjudicate over the verdict of the earlier court, not the executive. The judiciary is responsible for determining guilt or innocence and allowing other branches of government to evaluate the legitimacy of an acquittal after such a trial blurs the separation of powers.

 

The Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 empowers administrative bodies to conduct a second inquiry into an employee whose dismissal/suspension has been set aside by the court on technical grounds.[30] This is giving undue power to administrative bodies to reopen a matter already gone into by the courts, and subverts the separation of powers. The rules mandate the suspension of an accused in cases where the criminal charge is connected with the government servant's official position or involves moral turpitude, unless there are exceptional reasons not to do so. Thus, the deck is stacked against the individual.

 

The rules are framed on the fact that the standard of proof in departmental proceedings is a mere balance of preponderances[31] compared to the more onerous requirement of “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal cases. In criminal proceedings, the persuasion of guilt must amount to such a moral certainty as convinces the court's mind, as a reasonable man, beyond all reasonable doubt. In administrative or departmental proceedings, a mere preponderance of probability is sufficient, and the defendant is not necessarily entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt[32].

 

Conclusion

 

The categorisation violates various constitutional principles as well as infringes on principles like the presumption of innocence which form the cornerstone of criminal jurisprudence. This arbitrary classification of acquittals into honourable or technical denies equal protection to those accused of criminal offences, and perpetuates stigma against those technically acquitted. The absence of effective appeal mechanisms violates the right to appeal and effective remedy, while the involvement of administrative bodies in adjudication blurs the separation of powers. The authors recommend the abandoning of such a classification in line with India’s constitutional ethos, and Human Rights Conventions such as the UDHR and ICCPR.


(The authors are students of National Law University, Jodhpur.)


[1] Code of Criminal Procedure, § 232 (1973).

[2] State of Assam & Anr. v. Raghava Rajagopalachari (1972) 7 SLR 44.

[3] Reserve Bank of India v. Bhopal Singh Panchal, (1994) 1 SCC 541.

[4] Gurudevdatta VKSS Maryadi & Ors. v. State of Maharashtra & Ors., (2020) 10 SCC 100.

[5] See State of Assam and another v. Raghava Rajagopalachari (1972) 7 SLR 44 ; RBI v. Bhopal Singh Panchal (1994) 1 SCC 541; Gurudevdatta VKSS Maryadi and Ors. v. State of Maharashtra and Ors. (2020) 10 SCC 100; Deputy Inspector General of Police v. S Samuthiram, 2012 SCC OnLine SC 980; Imtiyaz Ahmad Malla v. The State of Jammu and Kashmir and Ors., SLP (C) No. 678 of 2021; Panna Mehta v. State of M.P., 2002 SCC OnLine MP 329.

[6] Deputy Inspector General of Police v. S Samuthiram, 2012 SCC OnLine SC 980.

[7] State of Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar 1952 AIR SC 75.

[8] Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Justice S.R. Tendolkar 1958 AIR SC 538.

[9] Id.

[10] Imtiyaz Ahmad Malla v. The State of Jammu and Kashmir and Ors., SLP (C) No. 678 of 2021.

[11] Garikapati Veeraya v. N. Subbiah Choudhry 1957 AIR SC 540.

[12] Mohamed Anas v. Narcotics Control Bureau, Crim. App. No. 245 of 2021.

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A (III), art. 8, U.N. Doc. A/RES/3/217A (Dec. 10, 1948).

[14] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, art. 2.3.

[15] Govindammal v. The Commissioner of Police, 2011 (1) MWN (Cr.) 560 (DB) 6.

[16] Tara Prasad Sharma v. State of Sikkim, 2021 SCC OnLine Sikk 56.

[17] Ashutosh Pawar vs. High Court of Madhya Pradesh, 2018 SCC Online MP 72.

[18] E.Kalivarathan vs The State, Criminal Revision Case No. 684 of 2014.

[19] Manu Sharma v. State (NCT) of Delhi, Crim. App. No. 179 of 2007.

[20] Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd. v. SEBI, Civil Appeal No. 9813 of 2011.

[21] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684; Data Ram v. State of U.P., Crim. App. No. 227 of 2018;         Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia v. State of Punjab, AIR 1980 SC 1632.

[22] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, §§ 101, 102.

[23] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A (III), art. 11, U.N. Doc. A/RES/3/217A (Dec. 10, 1948).

[24] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, art. 14.

[25] Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala 1973 AIR SC 1461, ¶ 2003.

[26] Dhananjay Mahapatra, Honourable Acquittal Must to Join Forces: Supreme Court, Times of India (Oct. 7, 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/honourable-acquittal-must-to-join-forces-supreme-court/86825414.cms

[27] Union of India & Ors. v. Methu Meda, Civil App. No. 6238 of 2021.

[28] Union Territory, Chandigarh Admin. & Ors. v. Pradeep Kumar & Ors., (2018) 1 SCC 797.

[29] Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain & Anr., AIR 1975 SC 865.

[30] Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1965, r. 10(4).

[31] State of Haryana v. Rattan Singh (1977) 2 SCC 491; Ajit Kumar Nag v. General Manager (PJ), Indian Oil Corpn. Ltd., (2005) 7 SCC 764.

[32] State of Rajasthan v. Heem Singh, Civil App. No. 3340 of 2020 arising out of SLP (C) No. 30763 of 2019.

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