According to COVID-19 guidelines issued by various state governments, not wearing a mask while driving one’s personal car attracts a fine of Rs 500. Police issuing tickets for violating the mask rule even when the driver is alone in the car has led to some criticism.
Medical experts have also questioned the rationale of the rule, arguing that masks must be mandated only in public places. However, legal backing for the contentious rule comes from a 2019 ruling of the Supreme Court. Read in Malayalam and Tamil
What does the rule mandating masks say?
To check the spread of COVID-19, many states and districts have issued guidelines mandating the use of masks in public spaces under the National Disaster Management Act.
Violating such guidelines is penalised under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant. The punishment prescribed under this law is imprisonment of up to six months or a fine that could extend up to Rs 1000.
In Delhi, the Delhi Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19, Regulations, 2020 under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 mandate the use of masks in all public spaces. The regulation gives power to various authorities to impose the fines.
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How can a personal car be considered a public space?
For this, the states have relied on a 2019 ruling of the Supreme Court in Satvinder Singh Saluja versus the State of Bihar.
In this ruling, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that a private car on a public road can be deemed a ‘public place’. Therefore, any activity that is not permitted in public places will automatically be impermissible inside a private car. Smoking, drinking, obscenity, are examples of activities that could attract penal action even when taking place inside a personal car, which is on a public road.
What was the case about?
The court was hearing an appeal against a 2018 judgement of the Patna High Court relating to the Bihar Excise Amendment Act, 2016, essentially a reading of the state’s prohibition laws.
The petitioners in the case had been travelling to Bihar from Jharkhand in 2016 when their car was checked by the police at the border in Bihar’s Nawada district. Although no liquor was found in the car, the passengers were subjected to a breath analyser test and were found to have consumed alcohol.
The petitioners were arrested and kept in custody for two days after a judicial magistrate took cognizance of the offence. When challenged, the order taking cognizance was upheld by the Patna High Court.
Since Bihar’s prohibition laws state that consuming alcohol in a public place is an offence, the prosecution argued that the private car the accused were travelling in constitutes a public place, since the car was intercepted in a public space.
The Bihar law describes “public place” to mean any place to which public has access whether as a matter of right or not, and includes all places visited by the public and also any open space or any transport, whether public or private.
Interpreting the definition, the court essentially looked at whether the public has access to a private vehicle or not.
“It is true that the public may not have access to private vehicle as a matter of right but definitely public have the opportunity to approach the private vehicle while it is on the public road,” the Supreme Court held.
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