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Taking Fingerprint of Accused Doesn't Breach His Right Against Self-Incrimination

In STATE OF U.P vs  SUNIL, settling a doubt which has troubled crime investigators for long, the Supreme Court has ruled that asking an accused to give finger or foot prints for investigation purposes did not violate his fundamental right to protect himself from becoming a witness against himself.

The question before a bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Rohinton Fali Nariman was "whether compelling an accused to provide his fingerprints or footprints etc would come within the purview of Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India, that is compelling an accused of an offence to be a 'witness' against himself"?

This question arose in a case involving the murder of four persons of a family in Etawah in September 2000. The main accused died during the trial but his alleged associate, who had refused to give finger and foot prints to the investigating officer despite a direction from the trial court, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

The HC acquitted him while holding, among other things, that the trial court could not have drawn an adverse inference because the accused refused to give a specimen of his palm impression in spite of the court order. The UP government and a relative of the murdered persons appealed against the acquittal in the SC.

The SC bench took note of the accused person's fundamental right under Article 20(3), which provides, "No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself." It also examined a 2010 judgment (Selvi vs Karnataka), in which the SC had said investigators could not force an accused to undergo narco-analysis or lie-detector tests as it involved extracting self-incriminating statements, which would violate protection under Article 20(3).

After examining the constitutional provision and other SC judgments, the bench said, "Any person can be directed to give his footprints for corroboration of evidence and the same cannot be considered a violation of protection guaranteed under Article 20(3) of the Constitution." It overturned the HC ruling that if an accused refused to give fingerprints or footprints, despite court direction, no adverse inference could be drawn against him.

Justices Ghose and Nariman said, "It may, however, be noted that non-compliance of such direction of the court may lead to adverse inference, nevertheless, the same cannot be entertained as the sole basis of conviction." This caveat - non-compliance leading to adverse inference could not be the sole ground for conviction - saved accused Sunil from the gallows.

Referring to the evidence collected by UP police in the case, the bench said, "It could without any hesitation be said that the basic foundation of the prosecution had crumbled down in this case by not connecting the accused Sunil with the incident in question. And when basic foundation in criminal cases is so collapsed, the circumstantial evidence becomes inconsequential. In such circumstances, it is difficult for the court to hold that a judgment of conviction could be founded on the sole circumstance that recovery of weapon and other articles have been made."

In arriving at the conclusion that a court could direct an accused to give fingerprints and footprints, the SC relied on its judgment in a 1962 case. In that case, the SC had said, "The giving of finger impressions or of specimen writing or of signatures by an accused person, though it may amount to furnishing evidence in the larger sense, is not included within the expression 'to be witness'."
It had further said, "Taking of impressions of parts of body of an accused person very often becomes necessary to help investigation of a crime. It is as much necessary to protect an accused person against being compelled to incriminate himself, as to arm the agents of law and the law courts with legitimate powers to bring offenders to justice."

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