The Karnataka High Court has recently passed a landmark judgment that police and criminal courts do not have the power to seize passports of accused persons or witnesses in criminal cases. The court held that only the passport authority, under the Passport Act, 1967, can impound or revoke a passport.
The case that led to the judgment
The judgment was delivered by a division bench of Justices B V Nagarathna and N S Sanjay Gowda on December 8, 2023, while hearing a petition filed by one Ravi Kumar, who had challenged the rejection of his application for the release of his passport by a trial court.
Ravi Kumar’s passport was seized by the police in connection with a criminal case registered against him for cheating and forgery. He had applied for the release of his passport under Sections 451 and 457 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which deal with the custody and disposal of property pending trial. However, the trial court had dismissed his application on the ground that the passport was required for identification of the accused and for securing his presence during the trial.
Ravi Kumar then approached the high court, contending that the police and the criminal court had no authority to seize his passport, and that it violated his fundamental right to travel abroad.
The court’s reasoning and conclusion
The high court agreed with Ravi Kumar’s contention and quashed the trial court’s order. The court observed that the passport is not a property that can be seized under the CrPC, but a document that grants a right to travel outside India. The court said that the passport is issued by the passport authority under the Passport Act, 1967, and that the act provides the procedure and grounds for impounding or revoking a passport.
The court noted that the Passport Act is a special law that prevails over the general law of the CrPC, and that the police and the criminal courts cannot exercise the powers conferred on the passport authority under the act. The court said that the police and the criminal courts can only inform the passport authority about the pendency of a criminal case against a passport holder, and request the authority to take appropriate action as per the act.
The court also said that the seizure of the passport by the police or the criminal court does not serve any purpose, as it does not ensure the identification or the presence of the accused during the trial. The court said that there are other modes of identification and securing the presence of the accused, such as personal bond, surety, bail conditions, etc.
The court, therefore, ruled that the police and the criminal courts do not have the power to seize passports of accused persons or witnesses in criminal cases, and that they should release the passports forthwith, if they have already seized them. The court also directed the passport authority to act in accordance with the Passport Act, 1967, and the guidelines issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, in cases where the police or the criminal courts inform them about the pendency of criminal cases against passport holders.
The implications and significance of the judgment
The judgment of the Karnataka High Court is a significant one, as it clarifies the legal position and protects the right to travel abroad of passport holders who are involved in criminal cases. The judgment also prevents the misuse of the power of seizure by the police and the criminal courts, and ensures that the passport authority acts in a fair and transparent manner.
The judgment is also in line with the precedents set by the Supreme Court and other high courts, which have held that the passport is a valuable document that cannot be seized or impounded arbitrarily, and that the Passport Act is a special law that governs the issuance and cancellation of passports.
The judgment is expected to have a positive impact on the thousands of passport holders who are facing criminal cases in Karnataka, and who may have been deprived of their right to travel abroad due to the seizure of their passports by the police or the criminal courts.