Section 207 CrPC: Magistrate Cannot Withhold Any Document Submitted Along With Police Report Except When It Is Voluminous: SC

At the outset, we need to pay attention to what has been stated so explicitly by the Apex Court in this latest, landmark and laudable judgment titled P. Gopalkrishnan @ Dileep Vs State of Kerala and Anr. In Criminal Appeal No. 1794 of 2019 (Arising out of SLP(Cri) No. 10189/2018 delivered on November 29, 2019 that a Magistrate cannot withhold any “document” submitted by the investigating officer along with the police report except when it is voluminous. Further, in case of voluminous documents, the accused can be permitted to take inspection of the concerned document either personally or through his pleader in Court. There is nothing wrong in doing so!

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To put things in perspective, the Bench of Apex Court hearing this case was considering Kerala film actor Dileep’s plea for handing over copy of the visuals of the alleged sexual crime committed on a Kerala actress in February 2017. It was held that the contents of a memory card in relation to a crime amount to a ‘document’ and not a ‘material object’. Very rightly so!

To start with, this latest, landmark and laudable judgment authored by Justice AM Khanwilkar for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari of Supreme Court sets the ball rolling by after granting leave in para 1 by noting in para 2 that, “The conundrum in this appeal is: whether the contents of a memory card/pen-drive being electronic record as predicated in Section 2(1)(t) of the Information and Technology Act, 2000 (for short, ‘the 2000 Act’) would, thereby qualify as a “document” within the meaning of Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (for short, ‘the 1872 Act’) and Section 29 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (for short, ‘the 1860 Code’)? If so, whether it is obligatory to furnish a cloned copy of the contents of such memory card/pen-drive to the accused facing prosecution for an alleged offence of rape and related offences since the same is appended to the police report submitted to the Magistrate and the prosecution proposes to rely upon it against the accused, in terms of Section 207 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (for short, ‘the 1973 Code’)? The next question is: whether it is open to the Court to decline the request of the accused to furnish a cloned copy of the contents of the subject memory card/pen-drive in the form of video footage/clipping concerning the alleged incident/occurrence of rape on the ground that it would impinge upon the privacy, dignity and identity of the victim involved in the stated offence(s) and moreso because of the possibility of misuse of such cloned copy by the accused (which may attract other independent offences under the 2000 Act and the 1860 Code?”

Be it noted, para 3 then observes that, “The appellant has been arrayed as accused No. 8 in connection with offence registered as First Information Report (FIR)/Crime Case No. 297/2017 dated 18.2.2017 punishable under Sections 342, 366, 376, 506(1), 120B and 34 of the 1860 Code and Sections 66E and 67A of the 2000 Act, concerning the alleged incident/occurrence at around 2030 hrs. to 2300 hrs. on 17.2.2017, as reported by the victim.”

As it turned out, para 4 then illustrates that, “For considering the questions arising in this appeal, suffice it to observe that the investigating officer attached to the Nedumbassery Police Station, Ernakulam, Kerala, after recording statements of the concerned witnesses and collecting the relevant evidence, filed police reports under Section 173 of the 1973 Code before the Judicial First Class Magistrate, Angamaly, First police report on 17.4.2017 and the second on 22.11.2017. When the appellant was supplied a copy of the second police report on 15.12.2017, all documents noted in the said report, on which the prosecution proposed to rely, were not supplied to the appellant, namely, (i) electronic record (contents of memory card); (ii) Forensic Science Laboratory (for short, ‘the FSL’) reports and the findings attached thereto in C.D./D.V.D.; (iii) medical reports; C.C.T.V. footages and (iv) Call data records of accused and various witnesses etc.”

To put things in perspective, para 5 then envisages that, “It is noted by the concerned Magistrate that the visuals copied and documented by the forensic experts during the forensic examination of the memory card were allowed to be perused by the appellant’s counsel in the presence of the regular cadre Assistant Public Prosecutor of the Court, in the Court itself. After watching the said visuals, some doubts cropped up, which propelled the appellant to file a formal application before the Judicial First Class Magistrate, Angamaly for a direction to the prosecution to furnish a cloned copy of the contents of memory card containing the video and audio footage/clipping, in the same format as obtained in the memory card, alongwith the transcript of the human voices, both male and female recorded in it.”

It cannot be lost on us that it is observed in para 6 that, “The Magistrate vide order dated 7.2.2018, rejected the said application, essentially on the ground that acceding to the request of the appellant would be impinging upon the esteem, decency, chastity, dignity and reputation of the victim and also against public interest.”

It also cannot be lost on us that it is then envisaged in para 7 that, “Aggrieved by the above decision, the appellant carried the matter to the High Court of Kerala at Ernakulam (for short, ‘the High Court’) by way of Cri.M.C. No. 1663/2018. The learned single Judge of the High Court dismissed the said petition and confirmed the order of the Magistrate rejecting the stated application filed by the appellant. The High Court, however, after analyzing the decisions and the relevant provisions cited before it, eventually concluded that the seized memory card was only the medium on which the alleged incident was recorded and hence that itself is the product of the crime. Further, it being a material object and not documentary evidence, is excluded from the purview of Section 207 of the 1973 Code.”

To say the least, it is then pointed out in para 8 that, “The appellant being dissatisfied, has assailed the reasons which found favour with the trial Court, as well as the High Court. The appellant broadly contends that the prosecution case is founded on the forensic report which suggests that eight video recordings were retrieved from the memory card and that the video files were found to be recorded on 17.2.2017 between 22:30:55 hrs. and 22:48:40 hrs. The same were transferred to the stated memory card on 18.2.2017 between 09:18 hrs and 09:20 hrs. Be it noted that the original video recording was allegedly done by accused No. 1 on his personal mobile phone, which has not been produced by the investigating agency. However, the memory card on which the offending video recording was copied on 18.2.2017 was allegedly handed over by an Advocate claiming that the accused No. 1 had given it to him. He had presented the memory card before the Court on 20.2.2017, which was sent for forensic examination at State FSL, Thiruvananthapuram. After forensic examination, the same was returned alongwith FSL report DD No. 91/2017 dated 3.3.2017 and DD No. 115/2017 dated 7.4.2017. A pen-drive containing the data/visuals retrieved from the memory card, was also enclosed with the report sent by the State FSL.”

More importantly, it is then stated in para 9 that, “Be that as it may, the prosecution was obviously relying on the contents of the memory card which have been copied on the pen-drive by the State FSL during the analysis thereof and has been so adverted to in the police report. The contents of the memory card, which are replicated in the pen-drive created by the State FSL would be nothing but a “document” within the meaning of the 1973 Code and the provisions of the 1872 Act. And since the prosecution was relying on the same and proposes to use it against the accused/appellant, it was incumbent to furnish a cloned copy of the contents thereof to the accused/appellant, not only in terms of Section 207 read with Section 173(5) of the 1973 Code, but also to uphold the right of the accused to a fair trial guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The trial Court rejected the request of the appellant on the ground that it would affect the privacy and dignity of the victim, whereas, the High Court proceeded on the basis that the memory card is a material object and not a “document”. It is well known that a cloned copy is not a photo copy, but is a mirror image of the original, and the accused has the right to have the same to present his defence effectively. In the alternative, it is submitted, that the Court could have imposed appropriate conditions while issuing direction to the prosecution to furnish a cloned copy of the contents of memory card to the accused/appellant.”

Most importantly, it is also rightly underscored in para 32 that, “It is crystal clear that all documents including “electronic record” produced for the inspection of the Court alongwith the police report and which prosecution proposes to use against the accused must be furnished to the accused as per the mandate of Section 207 of the 1973 Code. The concomitant is that the contents of the memory card/pen-drive must be furnished to the accused, which can be done in the form of cloned copy of the memory card/pen-drive. It is cardinal that a person tried for such a serious offence should be furnished with all the material and evidence in advance, on which the prosecution proposes to rely against him during the trial. Any other view would not only impinge upon the statutory mandate contained in the 1973 Code but also the right of an accused to a fair trial enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”

Equally important if not more is what is then stated in para 41 which postulates that, “We are conscious of the fact that Section 207 of the 1973 Code permits withholding of document(s) by the Magistrate only if it is voluminous and for no other reason. If it is an “electronic record”, certainly the ground predicated in the second proviso in Section 207, of being voluminous, ordinarily, cannot be invoked and will be unavailable. We are also conscious of the dictum in the case of Superintendent and Remembrancer of Legal Affairs, West Bengal vs. Satyen Bhowmick & Ors. (1981) 2 SCC 109, wherein this Court has restated the cardinal principle that accused is entitled to have copies of the statements and documents accompanying the police report, which the prosecution may use against him during the trial.”

Making the picture more clear on this, it is then pointed out in para 42 that, “Nevertheless, the Court cannot be oblivious to the nature of offence and the principle underlying the amendment to Section 327 of the 1973 Code, in particular sub-Section (2) thereof and insertion of Section 228A of the 1860 Code, for securing the privacy of the victim and her identity. Thus understood, the Court is obliged to evolve a mechanism to enable the accused to reassure himself about the genuineness and credibility of the contents of the memory card/pen-drive from an independent agency referred to above, so as to effectively defend himself during the trial. Thus, balancing the rights of both parties is imperative, as has been held in Asha Ranjan (supra) and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (supra). The Court is duty bound to issue suitable directions. Even the High Court, in exercise of inherent power under Section 482 of the 1973 Code, is competent to issue suitable directions to meet the ends of justice.”

What’s more, it is then added in para 43 that, “If the accused or his lawyer himself, additionally, intends to inspect the contents of the memory card/pen-drive in question, he can request the Magistrate to provide him inspection in Court, if necessary, even for more than once alongwith his lawyer and I.T. expert to enable him to effectively defend himself during the trial. If such an application is filed, the Magistrate must consider the same appropriately and exercise judicious discretion with objectivity while ensuring that it is not an attempt by the accused to protract the trial. While allowing the accused and his lawyer or authorized I.T. expert, all care must be taken that they do not carry any devices much less electronic devices, including mobile phone which may have the capability of copying or transferring the electronic record thereof or mutating the contents of the memory card/pen-drive in any manner. Such multipronged approach may subserve the ends of justice and also effectuate the right of accused to a fair trial guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.”

In a nutshell, it is then rightly held in para 44 that, “In conclusion, we hold that the contents of the memory card/pen drive being electronic record must be regarded as a document. If the prosecution is relying on the same, ordinarily, the accused must be given a cloned copy thereof to enable him/her to present an effective defence during the trial. However, in cases involving issues such as of privacy of the complainant/witness or his/her identity, the Court may be justified in providing only inspection thereof to the accused and his/her lawyer or expert for presenting effective defence during the trial. The court may issue suitable directions to balance the interests of both sides.” Very rightly so!

Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.