The authority is vested exclusively with Regional Passport Officers, says judge

Neither police nor courts have the authority to impound passports of accused involved in criminal cases as the power to do so is conferred exclusively upon Regional Passport Officers under the Passports Act 1967, the Madras High Court Bench here has said.

Justice M. Venugopal made the observation while allowing a criminal revision petition filed by an accused against the refusal of a District Munsif-cum-Judicial Magistrate at Orathanadu in Thanjavur district to return his passport seized by the police and kept in court custody for long. Though policemen can seize passports by invoking powers conferred on them under Section 102(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, they could not impound them without referring the issue to the RPOs concerned for initiating appropriate action under the Passport Act, the judge said. Pointing out the difference between the terms ‘seizure’ and ‘impound,’ the judge recalled that the Supreme Court in a case decided in 2008 had held that ‘seizure’ meant taking a document into custody for a short duration of time whereas impounding meant retaining it for days together.

He added that the only option available to the police after seizing passports was to write to the passport authorities seeking their indulgence. Thereafter, it was up to the RPOs to take a decision after giving an opportunity of hearing to the accused because impounding of passports involved civil consequences.

The petitioner Kalaiarasan was arrested at the Chennai airport, when he returned to the country from his workplace in Singapore, following an arrest warrant issued against him by a lower court in a criminal case. However, the petitioner was acquitted from the case after completion of trial. Yet, the court refused to return his passport citing pendency of yet another case registered against him under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and hence the present revision.

The judge ordered the lower court to return the passport forthwith as it had not been impounded under the provisions of the Passport Act.

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