Police arrest ‘innocents over suspicious behaviour’ between sunrise and sunset
On January 13, 65-year-old Maharashtra-based vendor Noor Mohammad, who had come for treatment in a private hospital here, slept in front of a mosque in Bunder as he could not afford a room for himself. Around midnight, he was picked up by the police, and later spent a week in jail. The diabetic and physically-challenged man, who could not understand the police questioning in Kannada, was charged with “suspicious behaviour”.
A week later, in Belthangady, a 17-year-old boy, who was waiting at the bus stop at around 7 p.m. was arrested. The police told the court that his “unsatisfactory” answers during interrogation gave an impression of “suspicious” behaviour. The boy spent 24 days in jail. Both were charged under Section 96 of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963, which allows the police to arrest anyone found under “suspicious circumstances between sunset and sunrise”.
According to statistics furnished by the Mangalore City Police, between January 2011 and January 31, 2013, 35 persons were arrested under the Act. Of these, eight were convicted, two acquitted and the rest were under trial or under investigation. During the same period, the district police booked 12 persons — three were convicted, one was acquitted and the rest were under trial. Some activists and lawyers see this as a gross misuse of the powers accorded to the police. Muneer Katipalla of Democratic Youth Federation of India said it was mostly the homeless who were arbitrarily arrested. “They can’t even pay for the bail or the fine, and end up spending time in jail,” he said. There is no culpability on the police for making arrests on “suspicion” without conducting a thorough investigation,” he said. Lawyers Shashiraj Kavoor and Shiva Kumar, who have handled cases under the Act, said the poor and the senior citizens, or runaway children usually got caught up in this.
“It seems like the police have to show they have been arresting people and preventing crimes. It isn’t uncommon for innocents to be arrested under the Act, and later framed for unsolved thefts,” said Mr. Kavoor.
He questioned the convictions under the Act. “The questioning flusters those arrested as they have to convince the police that they have not done or won’t do anything wrong. At this stage, they would rather plead guilt and pay the fine – which is around Rs. 2,000 – rather than face the trial, which may take years,” he said.
While advocate Dinesh Hegde Ulepady did not see an intentional misuse of the Act, he said there was a lack of “application of the mind” by policemen who booked cases without a preliminary inquiry. Denying that there was pressure on the police to arrest people under the Act, City Police Commissioner Manish Karbikar said the figure of one case per station per year was too low to show any systemic misuse. “The Act can be used constructively. Hundreds of people on the streets exhibit suspicious behaviour and the police have to take these precautions. Though, we need to look at individual cases to comment on the misuse,” he said.
Section 96 of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963, allows the police to arrest anyone found under “suspicious circumstances between sunset and sunrise”.
Suspicious behaviour involves someone who “cannot satisfactorily account” his presence, or lying or loitering in the street, or possessing any material without “lawful excuse”.
The Act clearly places the burden of proving innocence on the person being questioned. The guilty can be sentenced to up to three months in prison.