Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Supreme Court upholds high court ruling in drug case, adds that it is already lenient

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New Delhi (ILNS): The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal by a man sentenced to two year rigorous imprisonment in a drug case while stating the sentence accorded by the High Court is clearly already far too charitable. 

A three-judge bench of Justices N. V. Ramana, Surya Kant & Hrishikesh Roy has answered the three questions which it formulates to decide the appeal by a man who challenged the High Court order whereby his acquittal under section 20 of the NDPS Act was reversed and sentence of two-year rigorous imprisonment with a fine of Rs 50,000 was instead imposed. 

The Supreme Court has formulated three questions of Law: (A) What is the scope and essence of the High Court’s appellate jurisdiction against a judgment of acquittal?; (B) What is the extent of reliance upon a document with which the other side was not confronted with during the examination?; and (C) Whether non-examination of independent witnesses vitiates the prosecution case? Additionally, the Supreme Court has also questioned the order of sentencing by the High Court, where it took the lenient view. 

A) Scope of Appeal in cases of acquittal

On the first question of Law, the Supreme Court has said an appellate Court is free to re-consider questions of both law and fact, and re-appreciates the entirety of evidence on record. There is, nonetheless, a self-restraint on the exercise of such power, considering the interests of justice and the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence.

“The appellant’s contention that the High Court could not have set aside a finding of acquittal, is legally unfounded. It has been settled through a catena of decisions that there is no difference of power, scope, jurisdiction or limitation under the CrPC between appeals against judgments of conviction or of acquittal,” said the Court. 

B) Reliance on prosecution’s reply to bail application

Since irrelevant material was impermissibly relied upon by the trial court to arrive at an acquittal, the High Court was adequately justified to interfere with reverse the findings, said the Apex Court. 

C) Need for independent witnesses

The Supreme Court noted, “the trial court held that no independent witness supported the prosecution case and that the testimonies of the star police-witnesses, namely, PW2 and PW5, were contradictory. Both these observations are unreasoned and unsubstantiated by the evidence on record. The High Court, on the contrary, has given cogent and lucid reasons as to how the testimony of PW1 (alleged hostile independent witness) also substantially supports the prosecution case.”

D) Leniency in sentencing

The Supreme Court has said,

“after having given a very generous consideration to the appellant’s age and circumstances, as well as the delay in trial and appeal, we feel that it would serve the interests of justice to simply not disturb the sentence of two year’s rigorous imprisonments and a fine of Rs 50,000 which has been awarded by the High Court.” 

It further said,

“we say so for the reason that the law on minimum mandatory sentence, both at the time of commission of the offence and at the stage of appeal, prohibits any imprisonment lower than a term of ten year. The High Court, as the law was being misconstrued at that time, relied upon the quantity of pure resin content of 424 gms. Instead, as now stands clarified by a co-ordinate Bench of this court in Hira Singh v. Union of India, 2020 SCC online SC 382, 10(II), the total quantity of the mixture, which includes the neutral substance, ought to be relevant for the purpose of sentencing. The total quantity in the instant case is 1kg 230 gms, which exceeds the definition of ‘commercial quantity’ as specified at SI. no. 23 in notification S.O. 1055 (E), dated 19.10.2001. Thus, the sentence accorded by the High Court is clearly already far too charitable.”

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Therefore, the Supreme Court has dismissed the appeal and directed State to take the appellant into custody to serve the remainder of his two years’ sentence. 

Read the judgment here;


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