Saturday, February 13, 2021

Guest Post: A Deconstruction of the Bengaluru Crime Branch's Legal Status

(This is a guest post by Rahul Machaiah)

On 18 January, 2021, the Karnataka High Court held that the Central Crime Branch (CCB) of the Bengaluru City Police is not a 'police station' under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and hence courts cannot take cognizance of the police reports filed by the CCB. This judgment has exposed a long standing blunder of the state government and can have ramifications on a number of pending cases.

In this case (Dr M.G Gopal v. State), the petitioners were accused of cheating, criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust. An FIR was filed against them in the jurisdictional police station. Thereafter, the case was transferred to the CCB. The Inspector of the Fraud and Misappropriation Squad investigated the case and filed a police report against the accused. The Magistrate took cognizance of the offences under Section 190(1) (b) of the CrPC. The petitioners filed a revision petition against the order passed by the Magistrate while taking cognizance. One of the contentions of the petitioners was that a police report under Section 173 of the CrPC could be filed only by an officer-in- charge of a police station and since the CCB is not a police station, its Inspector could not file a police report. The petitioners relied on the fact that unlike the Criminal Investigation Department, the CCB had not been declared as a police station by the state government under Section 2(s) of the CrPC. Hence, the petitioners sought the quashing of the cognizance taken on the basis of the CCB's police report.

The State argued that while it is true that the CCB is not a police station, it has powers to file police reports as the investigation was entrusted to it by the senior officers under Section 36 of the CrPC. Section 36 empowers a senior officer to exercise the same powers as that of an officer- in- charge of a police station. The complainant argued that Section 173 empowers the investigating officer to file a police report after completing the investigation and that the investigating officer need not be an officer-in-charge of a police station.

The Court adopted the literal rule of interpretation and concluded that Section 173(2) of the CrPC empowers only an officer- in- charge of a police station to forward a police report to the Magistrate. Therefore, when the CCB had not been declared as a police station under Section 2(s) of the CrPC, it could not file police reports under Section 173. The literal rule was of interpretation was applied to Section 36 as well and the Court held that Section 36 had no application to an Inspector of the CCB as he was not superior in rank to an officer- in- charge of a police station. Hence, the Court set aside the impugned order of the Magistrate.

It is pertinent to note that in November, 2020 the Karnataka High Court had held that while the CCB is not a police station and cannot register FIRs, it has powers to investigate cases transferred to it by the Commissioner of Police. The Court did not express any opinion on the power to file a police report at the end of the investigation. The judgment in Dr M.G Gopal v. State is silent on whether the CCB can investigate cases despite not being a police station. Thus, the CCB's power to investigate cases has been upheld in one case while its power to file police reports has been extinguished in another. This is a peculiar position of law as despite being the investigating agency in a case, the CCB cannot file a police report before the Magistrate.

The State Government has clearly erred by not designating the CCB as a police station ever since it was established in 1971. The failure to designate it as a police station has forced the CCB to function in an intricate manner of questionable legality. For instance, the CCB often conducts raids despite not having the power to register FIRs. If illegal activities are detected during a raid, the CCB then files an FIR in the jurisdictional police station. Sometimes, the same case is then transferred to the CCB for investigation. Such rigmaroles could have been avoided if the State Government had designated the CCB as a police station like it did with the Criminal Investigation Department and the Anti Corruption Bureau.

The CCB investigates a lot of cases every year and if the accused in these cases begin seeking quashing of the Magistrates' orders taking cognizance, it would lead to glitches in the criminal justice system. If the police reports filed by the CCB are not valid, those cases will have to be reinvestigated by police stations or an agency that has been designated as a police station. The other option is for the CCB to submit the reports to the officers in charge of the police stations where the cases were originally registered who shall then forward them to the courts under Section 173 of the CrPC. However, this can raise questions of propriety as the submission of the police report is the culmination of the investigation and it would be absurd for an officer not involved in the investigation to file the police report. In case an investigating agency like the CCB wants to conduct further investigation under Section 173(8) after discovering new facts, it would have to depend on the officer-in- charge of the police station to approach the court. This can be cumbersome and impractical as despite being well acquainted with the case, the CCB will have to depend on an officer who was not in any way involved with the investigation.

Every district in Karnataka has a Crime Branch that functions on the lines of the CCB. As most of these units have not been designated as police stations, the problems discussed earlier could plague the other crime branches as well. The state government must designate crime branches as police stations at the earliest. The state government's error will prove to be costly if criminals get cases quashed by pointing out that the crime branches have no authority to file police reports under Section 173 of the CrPC.

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