Supreme Court quashes Madras HC’s order imposing Imprisonment, Fine under Customs Act as No Opportunity of Cross-Examination was given [Read Judgment]

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The Supreme Court quashed the Madras High Court’s order imposing imprisonment, fine under Customs Act as no opportunity of cross-examination was given.

The Madras High Court, vide impugned judgment, proceeded to record conviction of all the six accused and awarded sentence to undergo imprisonment of one year and fine of Rs. 50,000/- each and in default to undergo further six months rigorous imprisonment. It accordingly allowed both the appeals.

The Anti-Smuggling Wing of the Customs department at Tuticorin, raided a warehouse upon receipt of some specific information. In the raid, large quantities of cardboard boxes were recovered. Three persons were also present there, who identified themselves as Rahman Sait alias Nathan, Selvaraj and Sullan. Upon questioning, Nathan admitted that 419 cardboard boxes contained sandalwood billet/sticks and 57 cardboard boxes contained Mangalore tiles. All the above cardboard boxes were kept for export from Tuticorin to Singapore clandestinely and to be delivered to one RN Contractors Enterprise Company, Singapore.

Mr. Vikramjit Banerjee, learned Additional Solicitor General for the Customs Department although could not dispute the submission that evidence of only one case has been considered while deciding both the appeals, however, submitted that as the evidence in both the cases were identical, no serious error could be alleged by the appellants. He further submitted that no prejudice has been caused to the appellants inasmuch as the evidence was same in both the trials.

The three judge bench of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice Vikram Nath and Justice B.V.Nagarathna held that in the matter of a criminal trial against any accused, the distinctiveness of evidence is paramount in light of accused’s right to fair trial, which encompasses two important facets along with others i.e., firstly, the recording of evidence in the presence of accused or his pleader and secondly, the right of accused to cross-examine the witnesses. These facts are, of course, subject to exceptions provided under law. In other words, the culpability of any accused cannot be decided on the basis of any evidence, which was not recorded in his presence or his pleader’s presence and for which he did not get an opportunity of cross-examination, unless the case falls under exceptions of law.

“Evidence recorded in a criminal trial against any accused is confined to the culpability of that accused only and it does not have any bearing upon a co-accused, who has been tried on the basis of evidence recorded in a separate trial, though for the commission of the same offence,” the Apex Court said.

“We find that the learned single Judge of the High Court has apparently not adopted the correct procedure prescribed under law and therefore, the judgment of the High Court needs to be set aside. Once a common judgment is set aside for one appeal, it cannot be upheld for another appeal. There cannot be a severance of the judgment particularly when it arises in a criminal case, where the rights of the accused are as important as the rights of a victim. Therefore, it would be in the fitness of things and in the interest of the parties that the matters are remanded to the High Court for a fresh decision in accordance with law,” the court added.

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