Validity of Circumstantial Evidence in Bribery Cases: Judgement SummaryValidity of Circumstantial Evidence in Bribery Cases
In April 2000, Ms. Neeraj Dutta, an Officer at the Delhi Vidyut Control Board, solicited a bribe of ₹10000 from Mr. Rajvit Singh Sethi for the purpose of installing an electricity metre in his shop. Mr. Sethi agreed but filed an FIR immediately after. The Police undertook a sting operation and caught Ms. Dutta red-handed. This resulted in Ms. Dutta’s arrest, immediately after the money was handed over.
She was booked under Sections 7 and 13 of the PCA Act which punishes public officials for receiving ‘illegal gratification’ as a reward for performing an official act.
However, Mr. Sethi passed away before the trial could begin. The Trial Court sentenced Ms. Dutta to three years imprisonment. In 2007 she appealed the Trial Court’s decision at the Delhi High Court. On April 2nd, 2009 the Delhi HC affirmed her conviction.
Less than two weeks later, on April 15th, 2009, she appealed the Delhi HC’s decision at the Supreme Court. A Bench comprising Justices R. Banumathi and R.S. Reddy referred the case to a Constitution Bench on February 28th, 2019. They found that the SC’s view on convicting a public servant based on circumstantial evidence in three precedents appeared to contradict one another:
- M. Narsinga Rao v State of A.P. (2001).
- B. Jayaraj v State of Andhra Pradesh (2014) and
- P. Satyanarayana Murthy v District Inspector of Police, State of Andhra Pradesh, (2015)
In Narsinga Rao (2001), the Bench allowed conviction based on circumstantial evidence. The Court also pondered whether facts could be presumed based on circumstantial evidence. However, In Jayaraj (2014), where the witness turned hostile and there was insufficient proof that a bribe was accepted. In P. Sathyanarayana Murthy, (2015), the SC held that in the absence of the primary witness, it was impermissible to presume facts and convict a public servant for bribery.
The 2-Judge Bench found that these judgements offered contradicting views on how the absence of a primary witness must be treated under the PCA. They sought clarification from a larger Bench. The Constitution Bench was vested with the task to decide if a public official can be convicted based on an ‘inferential deduction of guilt’ that is, find them guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
Previous SC Judgements are Not in Conflict
The Constitution Bench held that the SC’s judgements in P. Satyanarayana Murthy v District Inspector of Police, State of Andhra Pradesh (2015), B. Jayaraj v State of Andhra Pradesh (2014) and M. Narsinga Rao v State of A.P. (2001) were not in conflict with each other. The facts and degrees of proof available in each case were different.
In P. Sathyanarayana (2015), the primary witness passed away without establishing that a bribe was taken. In Jayaraj (2014), the witnesses turned hostile and completely denied paying bribes. There was not enough foundational evidence to convict the public servant for the offence.
However, in Narsinga Rao (2001), the Court clarified that it had the discretion to infer facts based on circumstantial evidence when the primary witness’s testimony was unavailable.
Lack of Primary Witness Does Not Result in Acquittal
The Court considered the situations where the complainant/ primary witness’s evidence is unavailable. This could either be because of their death or because they have turned ‘hostile’.
The Judgement states that in these cases, the trial does not automatically result in an order of acquittal of the accused public servant.
The evidence of other witnesses or circumstantial evidence could be used to establish guilt and convict the public servant.
Court Has the Discretion to Presume Facts on a Case-by-Case basis
Before the amendment in 2018, Sec. 20 of the PCA provided for a ‘presumption of law’. It states that, in instances where it is proved that a public servant accepted illegal gratification/bribe, the Court must presume that it was accepted for the discharge of their official duties.
A question before the Court was whether such a presumption of law could be based on a ‘presumption of facts.’ In other words, in the absence of a primary witness or the complainant, could the Court presume that gratification was received based on surrounding facts?
The Judgement clarified that the Court has the discretion to presume facts on a case-to-case basis when the foundational facts are established.
Difference Between ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Obtainment’ of Bribe
The Judgement elaborated on the difference between offences under Section 7 and Section 13 of the PCA (before its amendment). Sec. 7 confines ‘acceptance’ of illegal gratification to instances where a person offers a bribe without an express demand from the public servant. When the offer is accepted, it forms an offence under Sec. 7.
Sec. 13 which concerns ‘obtainment’ focuses on the ‘misconduct’ of a public servant. It constitutes the offence of ‘obtainment’ of illegal gratification when the public servant demands a bribe/ illegal gratification and the bribe giver complies.
In the case of ‘acceptance’, the bribe giver offers to pay the bribe and in the case of ‘obtainment’, the public official makes the demand.
The Court held that in both cases, it is essential to prove that an initial offer or demand for a bribe was made and received. In other words, mere acceptance or receipt of illegal gratification without an offer was insufficient to prove an offence under the PCA.