In a ruling that could push journalists and others conducting sting operations to tread with caution, the Supreme Court Thursday said those behind such operations could not get blanket immunity from criminal prosecution if their actions showed that they had prima facie committed a crime.
Their acts shall not stand obliterated only by a clamour that what they did was in the larger public good, it held.
The ruling by a bench led by Chief Justice P Sathasivam is considered significant as there is no law to regulate sting operations in the country. The verdict has a direct bearing on cases where monetary allurement or other favours are offered to “expose” a person.
The court dealt with questions whether the person conducting the sting should be held liable for a crime which is inseparable from the entire process, or should be exonerated since the act aimed to expose the main offender in a serious crime harmful to the public interest.
The court also considered the question whether the initial crime by the person conducting the sting should be understood to be without any criminal intent, and only to facilitate the commission of the other crime by the “main culprit”.
“The answer to the above, in our considered view would depend, as in any criminal case, on the facts and circumstances thereof. A crime does not stand obliterated or extinguished merely because its commission is claimed to be in public interest. Any such principle would be abhorrent to our criminal jurisprudence,” ruled the bench which also comprised Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N V Ramana.
The court said that issues of criminal liability will have to be established after evidence is included.
“The inherent possibilities of abuse of the operation as videographed, namely, retention and use thereof to ensure delivery of the favours assured by the receiver of the bribe has to be excluded before liability can be attributed or excluded. This can happen only after the evidence of witnesses is recorded,” it noted.
The court emphasised intention was the most important element in such cases and hence a journalist or any other person, who has no connection, even remotely, with the favour that is allegedly sought in exchange for the bribe offered, cannot be imputed with the necessary intent to commit the crime of abetment or conspiracy.
Maintaining that the illustrations cannot be exhaustive and a deeper probe may be required if the trial judge deems it fit, the court said that a full-fledged trial may be conducted in cases where the person conducting the sting prima facie had a stake in the favours that were allegedly sought in return for the bribe offered.
The ruling upholds the CBI’s stand that a person, who does a sting operation on the sly to expose a “corrupt” public official, is liable to be charged with the crime of abetting corruption. Abetment of corruption fetches a punishment of a maximum of five years in jail and a fine under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The verdict came as the court junked a petition by Rajat Prasad, a businessman, and Arvind Vijay Mohan, a journalist, who were charged with abetment of corruption and conspiracy for taking part in a sting operation in 2003, in which the then union minister for environment and forests, Dilip Singh Judeo, was caught on camera accepting Rs 9 lakh in a hotel room in New Delhi.
The CBI registered an FIR on the basis of a news report in The Indian Express on November 16, 2003.
The money was allegedly given on the pretext of obtaining favours from Judeo for mining projects in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. It was, however, alleged by Prasad that the sting was the result of a conspiracy hatched by Amit Jogi, son of Ajit Jogi, the then chief minister of Chhattisgarh, to disgrace Judeo just before the Chhattisgarh assembly elections so that Ajit Jogi could derive political mileage.