This post is authored by Thulasi K. Raj
Following the judgment of the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy, the privacy rights of accused persons have been litigated upon across various High Courts in India. The right to privacy is especially relevant at various stages of a criminal case where numerous situations can potentially infringe the accused’s privacy. In this post, I will examine how privacy claims made by the accused have been examined by courts post-Puttaswamy. I specifically examine two types of claims: (i) cases where the personal information of the accused is available (or has been made available) in the public domain; and (ii) cases concerning the procedures an accused may be subjected to.
In cases where the accused has raised a privacy claim, the State typically makes a ‘countervailing interest’ argument; that a key governmental interest such as effectively investigating crimes is furthered by interfering with an individual’s privacy, and hence is justified. However, Puttaswamy, laid down that State infringements on privacy cannot merely serve an important interest, but must fulfil the four-part test of legality, necessity, proportionality, and reasonable safeguards. The Supreme Court held that “An invasion of life or personal liberty must meet the threefold requirement of (i) legality, which postulates the existence of law; (ii) need, defined in terms of a legitimate State aim; and (iii) proportionality which ensures a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them.” The proportionality limb also specifically requires the State’s measure to be the least rights infringing measure possible that continues to fulfil the State’s desired objective, with courts balancing competing interests. Justice Kaul’s separate opinion would add a fourth limb to this test, ‘procedural safeguards against abuse of interference with rights’, in line with Article 21’s guarantee of a ‘procedure established by law’.
The first set of privacy claims is where the personal information of accused persons were made public due to them being the subject of a criminal prosecution and judicial interventions were sought to safeguard this data. One of the prominent cases in this regard was Re: Banners before the Allahabad High Court. The district administration and police had put up banners displaying the names and photographs of persons who were accused of vandalism.
Expressly referring to Puttaswamy’s, and applying thefour-tier test, the High Court in Re: Banners first held that there were no statutory provisions “permitting the State to place the banners with personal data of the accused” in public (contravening the ‘legality’ test). Further, the publication of personal data also failed the ‘legitimate aim’ and ‘proportionality’ requirements. The purported aim, as argued by the State, was to deter people from violating the law. According to the Court, this was insufficient as the action of publishing personal information on banners was not necessary to achieve this aim. Therefore, the banners were ordered to be removed and the administration was asked to refrain from such actions in the future without legal authority.
In Karthick Theodre, an individual who had been acquitted of criminal charges by a 2014 judgement sought the “erasure or redaction of his personal information from the public domain.” In other words, the petitioner sought the redaction or erasure of his name from the judgement. Relying on Puttaswamy, various arguments including the right to be forgotten were raised before the Madras High Court. The apprehension of the petitioner was duly noted, that whenever his name was searched through search engines, results relating to the judgment would appear. However, the Court dismissed the plea on the grounds that without an adequate data protection law, laying down the parameters of when the redaction of the names of the accused should be directed, there was no objective criteria based on which the court can pass orders. While certain High Courts have granted reliefs based on the right to be forgotten, (See Jorawar Singh Mundy, Zulfiqar Ahman Khan,) the Madras High Court held that absence of a statute renders the petitioner remediless.
The second set of cases are privacy claims by accused persons as to the procedures they can be subjected to during an investigation. In Mursaleen Mohammad, the appellant was convicted under the provisions of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (“NDPS”). The appellant was subject to an x-ray examination by the authorities and subsequently confined till he defecated to recover the contraband allegedly stored in his body. The Calcutta High Court observed that the search and recovery of contraband from a person contemplated under section 50 of the NDPS Act does not allow for invasive medical procedures absent compliance with strict statutory safeguards. The Court noted that there were procedural irregularities in collecting the ‘evidence’. By relying on Puttaswamy, the Court affirmatively held that ‘recovery of contraband inside the body of a suspect must not only be in accordance with the procedure established by law but also be compatible to (sic) the dignity of the individual and ought not subject him to cruel, inhuman treatment.” The recovery of contraband, according to the Court, encroached on the appellant’s right to privacy.
In Vinod Mittal, the Himachal Pradesh High Court considered the legality of an order by a Special Judge, directing the petitioner to undergo a polygraph test and provide a voice sample to the investigating agency. The petitioner challenged the constitutionality of these directions, relying on Article 20(3) of the Constitution and the decisions in Ritesh Sinha and Selvi. The petitioner, however, admitted that he was willing to provide the sample if the court found such procedures to be legally permissible. The High Court said that the tests the accused could be subjected to could broadly be divided into three kinds: “(i) permissible with or without consent, (ii) permissible with consent only, and (iii), impermissible altogether.” After studying relevant judgments, the Court held that polygraph tests fall under the second category.
The Court concluded that “It is not legally impermissible [for a court] to issue direction[s] to a person to undergo Narco Analysis, polygraph and BEAP test, but such direction shall be subject to consent of said person and the person has a right to elect to consent or refuse to undergo such test…” The Himachal Pradesh High Court, therefore, indicated through this case that such techniques, if done in an involuntary manner, would be an unjustified intrusion and violate an individual’s (mental) privacy.
These cases demonstrate that the four-tier test laid down in Puttaswamy has been significantly engaged with by constitutional courts in interpreting the right to privacy of the accused. The use of the conjunctive test laid down by the Supreme Court has facilitated a more robust scrutiny of State action vis-à-vis accused individuals. The interpretation certainly requires further development, with greater sophistication in enhancing the analysis under Puttaswamy. However, these are positive judicial observations that will likely result in a consistent and continuous engagement with violations of the right to privacy. While various aspects of the right to privacy, including the right to be forgotten, await comprehensive judicial recognition, privacy jurisprudence has tremendous potential to protect the rights of the accused in the years to come.