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Report No. 142

Chapter VI

Observations of Supreme Court of India Concerning "Plea-Bargaining" in the Context of the Present Legal Frame

6.1. Courts in India had not had occasion to consider directly the impact of the practice of plea-bargaining on the administration of criminal justice. It cannot be doubted that in quite a few trials and in the appeals against trial convictions, sentences are awarded taking into account suggestions made by the counsel for the defendant and agreed to by the prosecutors. These informal compromises do not have the sanction of law. Nevertheless, they are often acted upon without making specific reference to the compromise in the judgments of the courts concerned.

6.2. The Commission noticed that the Supreme Court has had occasion to make some observations in regard to the efficacy of "plea-bargaining" in two cases to which we shall presently refer. Since these observations emanate from the Supreme Court the Commission feels that it will be expedient to carefully assess the weight and importance thereof. The two cases are:

(i) Murlidhar Meghraj Loyn v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1976 SC 1929 (Krishna Iyer, Goswami, JJ.).

(ii) Kasambhai Abdulrehmanbhai Sheik v. State of Gujarat, AIR 1980 SC 854 (Bhagwati Sen, JJ.).

6.3. In Murlidhar Meghraj Loya's case the Supreme Court gained an impression that the defendants pleaded guilty. The Supreme Court felt that the plea must have been entered pursuant to an informal inducement on holding out the prospect of a light sentence. When the matter was carried on appeal against the light sentence, the appellate court reversed the trial court conviction and enhanced the sentence. Thereupon the accused approached the Supreme Court by way of an appeal.

6.4. In para. 13 at page 1933, the Supreme Court observed:

"Many economic offenders resort to practices the Americans 'call' plea-bargaining' plea negotiation', 'trading out' and 'compromise in criminal cases' and the trial magistrate drowned by a docket burden nods assent to the sub-rosa ante-room settlement.

This businessman culprit, confronted by a sure prospect of the agony and ignominy of tenancy of a prison cell 'trades out' of the situation, the bargain being a plea of guilt, coupled with a promise of the It is idle to speculate on the virtue of negotiated settlements of criminal cases, as Obtains in the United States but in our jurisdiction, especially in the area of dangerous economic crimes and food offences, this practice intends on society's interests by opposing society's decision expressed through pre-determined legislative fixation of minimum sentences and by subtly subverting the mandate of the law.

The jurists across the Atlantic partly condemn the bad odour of purchased pleas of guilt and partly justify it philosophically as a sentence concession to a defendant who has by his plea aided in ensuring the prompt and certain application of correctional measures to him."

[Emphasis added]

6.5. The Supreme Court did not interfere with the enhanced sentence as the minimum sentence was prescribed by the statute. The Supreme Court, however, observed that:

"the State must do its duty by justice to the citizens and relieve over-worked courts by more judicial agencies and streamline procedure instead of leaving the uninformed public blindly to censure delayed disposals."

6.6. Three factors deserve to be highlighted:

(1) The offence in question was an economic offence pertaining to food adulteration which affects the health an well being of unwary citizens.

(2) The Legislature had prescribed a minimum jail sentence and the trial court had brazenly flouted the legislative will and mandate by not sending the convict to jail for 3 months.

(3) There was no legal authority for invoking the plea-bargaining procedure not recognized by the Criminal Jurisprudence of India.

6.7. It may be pointed out, with respect, that plea-bargaining as invoked in American Courts does not necessarily involve "no jail" as was observed by the Supreme Court in Murlidhar's case. Observations to this effect are obviously based on a misapprehension that in every case where an accused enters a plea of guilty and negotiates for a compromise, he is let off without any sentence of imprisonment. On the contrary, in most cases the pre-trial negotiations can only result in a reduced sentence and defendant is not given a holiday from undergoing imprisonment in jail.

We may, perhaps, refer to a latest instance of plea-bargaining in the United States Federal Court involving a New Delhi businessman who had been sentenced, pursuant to a plea-bargain, to 33 months of imprisonment instead of the maximum of 42 months. An economic offence was involved in this case in that the businessman attempted illegal export of hi-tech equipment from the United States. The businessman pleaded guilty.

As a result of the plea-bargain, the sentence of imprisonment was reduced from 42 months R.I. to 33 months R.I. A report regarding the above matter appeared in the New Delhi edition of Indian Express dated 11-11-90. It will, therefore, be correct to observe that the bargain consists of a promise of "no jail" on the part of the prosecution or the outcome of the plea-bargaining in every case is that the offender gets off lightly with sentence of fine without undergoing a sentence of jail.

6.8. The Commission does not consider, in the circumstances aforementioned, that the evidence the understanding, but the Supreme Court felt, considering the circumstances of the case, that the sentence must be due to an understanding. The Supreme Court observed (para. 2, p. 854):

"It is highly regrettable that the prosecution as well as the learned Magistrate should have been a party to any such "plea-bargaining" in a prosecution for adulteration involving the health and will-being of the community."

Disapproval of the concept of plea-bargaining implicit in the observations of the Supreme Court has to be understood in the context highlighted hereinbefore.

6.11. The Statute provided a minimum sentence of three months imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 500. The High Court enhanced the sentence suo moto to conform to the minimum provided by (the Statute Surely there was no legal sanction for the learned Magistrate to disregard the minimum sentence provided by the Statute and to award a lesser sentence. It was in these circumstances that the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's action in disregarding the understanding between the parties at the trial stage and enhancing the conviction.

6.12. In para. 4 at page 855 the Supreme Court made some observations of a general character. These may be referred to:-

"The conviction of the appellant was based solely on the plea of guilty entered by him and his confession of guilt was the result of plea-bargaining betzveen the prosecution, the defence and the learned Magistrate. It is obvious that such conviction based on the plea of guilty entered by the appellant as a result of plea-bargaining cannot be sustained. It is to our mind contrary to public policy to allow a conviction to be recorded against an accused by inducing him to confess to a plea of guilty on an allurement being held out to him that if he enters a plea of guilty he will be let off very lightly.

Such a procedure would be clearly unreasonable, unfair and unjust and would be violative of the new activist dimension of Article 21 of the Constitution, unfolded in Maneka Gandhi's case. Next, it would have the effect of polluting the pure fount of justice, because in might induce an innocent accused to plead guilty to suffer a light and inconsequential punishment rather than go through a long, and arduous criminal trial which, having regard to out cumbrous and unsatisfactory system of administration of justice,
is not only long drawn out and ruinous in terms of time and money, but also uncertain and unpredictable in its result and the Judge also might be likely to be deflected from the path of duty to do justice and he might either convict an innocent accused by accepting the plea of guilty or let off a guilty accused with a light sentence, thus, subverting the process of law and frustrating the social objective and purpose of the anti-adulteration statute.

This practice would also tend to encourage corruption and collusion and as a direct consequence, contribute to the lowering of the standard of justice. There is no doubt in our mind that the conviction of an accused based on a plea of guilty entered by him as a result of plea-bargaining with the prosecution and the Magistrate must be held to be unconstitutional and illegal."

[Emphasis added]

6.13. Although the observations are made in the context of a serious economic offence for which a minimum sentence of jail is prescribed, they reflect the Supreme Court's views, generally speaking in the context of the American practice being adopted in the Indian Court without any authority of law. It is, therefore, necessary to carefully deal with the said objections.

Concessional Treatment for Offenders who on their own initiative choose to plead guilty without any bargaining Back

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