This article is written by Robin Kumar Thakur from Chanakya National Law University, Patna.
Law is more than just the ‘plain meaning’ of the words of a statute. The application of law also takes into account the intended meaning of the words in the statute, the context, and the seriousness of the crisis or situation. This leads to a whole range of different answers to various questions related to the applicability or interpretation of the law. The various precedents set by the courts over time shows us that one can find different or even conflicting answers in law to the same questions.
Personal Vehicle As A Public Place
The supreme court in the case of Boota Singh vs The State of Haryana held that a private vehicle will not be considered as public property, under Section 43 of the NDPS act. The accused here was charged with the possession of drugs, which were recovered from a jeep at a public place by the high court.
The petitioner here appealed against the decision of the high court contending that the vehicle from which the drugs were confiscated was a private vehicle so it should be governed by Section 42 of the NDPS Act, which deals with search, seizures and arrest without warrant and not with Section 43 which deals with seizure and arrest at a public place. The plaintiff contended that since Section 42 was not at all compiled, they were entitled to be acquitted. Section 43 (b) of the NDPS act explains public place as any public conveyance, hotel, shop, or other place intended for use by, or accessible to, the public.
Here, the supreme court noted that since this explanation of the public place only referred to “public conveyance” and not “personal vehicle”, the accused was acquitted on the grounds that a personal vehincle was not a publice place and it was the duty of the officers to abide by the procedures of Sec 42 of the NDPS act, which they failed to do.
Personal Vehicle, A Public Place: Delhi Face Masking Rule
Recently the Delhi high court in Saurabh Sharma and others vs Delhi Sub-divisional Magistrate (East) and others mandated the use of masks even if the person is travelling alone in his personal vehicle. The judgement was delivered by Justice Pratibha M Singh, stating that, in the present scenario of the Covid- 19 pandemic, any personal vehicle will be regarded as a public place. The court also said that the meaning of the word ‘public’ differs from statute to statute and context to context while referring to the precedents established in the case of Gaurav Jain vs Union of India.
The court, citing the COVID-19 pandemic stated that there is a risk of transmission to another person who might enter the car later. The court also stated that there exists a plethora of possibilities in which a person driving alone in their car is exposed to the outside environment.
Citing the immediate risk of exposure, the court held that a personal vehicle travelling across the city, even if occupied by one man only will be considered as a public place. While there was much doubt regarding the reasoning behind wearing masks in one’s personal car, it is to be noted that the court did not want to interfere in the regulations passed by the concerned authorities in Epidemic Diseases Act and Disaster Management Act. The court, citing the grave situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was being extra cautious. The chance of reducing the risk of transmission amid this grave situation of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the reason behind this judgement.
Alcohol Consumption In A Personal Car
The Supreme Court in the case Satvinder Singh Saluja vs The State Of Bihar had held that a person consuming liquor in a personal vehicle, at a public place will be held liable under the Bihar Excise Act which prohibits alcohol in the state of Bihar.
In this case, the petitioners while travelling from Giridih, Jharkhand to Patna, Bihar in a private vehicle were stopped at a checkpoint, where they were subjected to a breath analyser test. A certain amount of alcohol was found in the test. The petitioners argued that their personal vehicle cannot be said to be a public place under section 2 (17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2016 and therefore the ingredient of section 53 (A) is not satisfied.
The court ruled out the first argument on the basis of the definition of ‘public place’ given in the section 2 (17A) of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise (amendment) act 2016 which defines public place as any place to which public has access whether as a matter of right or not and includes all places visited by public and also includes any open space or any transport, whether public or private ; the court also added that though it may be true that the public has no right to access the car but it definitely has the opportunity to access the car on public roads. Hence the car comes under the ambit of Section 2(17A) of Bihar Excise Amendment Act 2016.
The court also emphasised on the fact that Section 2(53) of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act 2016 specifically included means of transport, both public and private.
At the first stroke from the above judgments gives us the feeling that whether a car is a private or public place depends upon the fact that whether the occupant is wearing a mask or lighting a joint. Law is not exact science, it behaves differently in different circumstances. In this case, the question as to what constitutes a public place cannot be universally set in stone. The term public place differs from statute to statute, enactment and even depends upon the context. Since most statutes have different definitions of the public place, there are different judgements by the courts. This shows us that sometimes answers in law can be contrary to the intuition of the layman.
The NARCOTIC DRUGS AND PSYCHOTROPIC SUBSTANCES ACT. 1985, Sec 42, Act no. 61, Acts of Parliament, 1985
The NARCOTIC DRUGS AND PSYCHOTROPIC SUBSTANCES ACT. 1985, Sec 43, Act no. 61, Acts of Parliament, 1985
BIHAR PROHIBITION AND EXCISE ACT, 2016, Bihar Act 20 of 2016
Boota Singh & Others v State Of Haryana – LNIND 2021 SC 14 (India)
Saurabh Sharma And Others v Sub-divisional Magistrate (East) & Others – LNIND 2021 DEL 708 (India)
Satvinder Singh Saluja And Others v The State Of Bihar – LNIND 2019 SC 478 (India)
Gaurav Jain v Union of India (1997) 8 SCC 114 (India)
Curated by Shivanshika Samaddar of National Law Unvesity Delhi.