Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Police officer cannot seize driving licence unless in uniform: Calcutta High Court

"... the duty to produce a licence and certificate of registration only arises under Section 130 of the 1988 Act, Sub-section (1) of which provides that the driver of a motor vehicle in any public place shall on demand by any police officer in uniform produce his licence for examination."
Calcutta High Court

The Court was dealing with a writ petition filed by Suryaneel Das (petitioner) alleging that he was intimidated and threatened by two men dressed in civilian clothes, who seized his driving licence, without the issuance of any temporary authorisation slip.

The petitioner told that Court that while he was talking on the phone, two men came up to him, asked him to disconnect the phone and step out of the car in order to answer some queries.

The men seized his driver's licence, all the while refusing to show any valid ID proofs. On the petitioner's insistence, they gave him a compound slip after the licence was seized. However, this slip did not disclose the identity of the impounding officers either.

In reprimanding the police authorities for their conduct, Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya remarked that,

“....the mala fides of the Sub-Inspector of Police, namely, Biswajit Das, is patent from his action in seizing the driving licence of the petitioner without issuing any acknowledgement which would act as a temporary licence for the petitioner in the first place.”

Calcutta High Court

The Court proceeded to rule in the petitioner's favour, inter alia, given that the police officers had violated the Motor Vehicles Act in seizing the driver's licence while not in uniform. The Court observed,

"... nothing has been disclosed as to the police being in uniform when they seized the driving licence and, as such, there was no duty cast upon the petitioner, who was the driver of the vehicle-in-question, to hand over his licence at all and the seizure of the licence was palpably under coercion on the part of the police officer involved, who was not even in uniform."

The Court also rejection submissions made by the police relying on Section 206 of the Motor Vehicles Act to justify its conduct. This provision allows the seizure of driving licence where it is suspected that the driver may abscond or avoid legal summons, where such person is charged with an offence.

The Court pointed out that even in such a scenario, the police "could at best take resort to Section 177 of the 1988 Act and impose a fine of Rs.100/- as stipulated for a first offence."

The Court further took critical note of a submission that the police in the area had no facility to accept cash or payment by card for any Motor Vehicle Act violation. Observing that the same was inexcusable, the Bench also pointed out that the alternative of seizing driver's licences for violations were disproportionate.

In this case, the High Court also held that there was no prima facie evidence to prove that the police gave an opportunity to the petitioner to pay any fine on the spot.

In view of these observations, the Court held that the seizure and the proceedings against the petitioner were liable to be quashed.

The High Court also cautioned the errant police officer to follow the due process of law in the future.

“Since a police officer is supposed to be a protector of justice, a much higher obligation is expected from the officers of the police than a common citizen with regard to protecting the law by following due process of law.”
Calcutta High Court
The writ petition was disposed of with directions that the police authorities immediately return the driving licence to the petitioner.

The respondent-authorities were represented by Advocates Amal Kumar Sen and Ashima Das. The petitioner appeared party-in-person.

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