The Supreme Court has cautioned the trial courts and High Courts not to impose harsh or excessive sentence of imprisonment on the accused in default of payment of a fine imposed along with the main sentence for the offence committed.
A Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogi said, “It is clear that the term of imprisonment in default of payment of fine is not a sentence. It is a penalty which a person incurs on account of non-payment of fine. On the other hand, if a sentence is imposed, undoubtedly, an offender must undergo [the sentence] unless it is modified or varied in part or whole in the judicial proceedings.”
Writing the judgment, Justice Sathasivam said, “The imprisonment ordered in default of payment of fine stands on a different footing. When such default sentence is imposed, a person is required to undergo imprisonment either because he is unable to pay the amount of fine or refuses to pay such an amount. Accordingly, he can always avoid undergoing imprisonment in default of payment of fine by paying such an amount. In such circumstance, we are of the view that it is the duty of the Court to keep in view the nature of offence, the circumstance in which it was committed, the position of the offender and other relevant considerations such as pecuniary circumstances of the accused person before ordering the offender to suffer imprisonment in default of payment of fine. The provisions of Sections 63 to 70 of IPC make it clear that an amount of fine should not be harsh or excessive. We also reiterate that where a substantial term of imprisonment is inflicted, an excessive fine should not be imposed except in exceptional cases.”
In the instant case, the appellants Shahejad Khan Mahebub Khan Pathan and Narendrasinh Chandrashekhar Rai were convicted by a trial court in Gujarat under the provisions of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and awarded a sentence of 15 years for carrying 500 gm of brown sugar. They were directed to pay a fine of Rs. 1.5 lakh each, and in default to undergo three years imprisonment. The Gujarat High Court confirmed the sentence and the appellants in their appeal mainly questioned the ‘default sentence’ contending that it was excessive.
Allowing the appeals, the Bench pointed out that the appellants were first-time offenders and the law provided for a minimum punishment of 10 years imprisonment and a maximum of 20 years.
The Bench therefore, reduced the sentence of 15 years to 10 years.
Further, the Bench said, “We are of the view that ends of justice would be met if we order that in default of payment of fine, the appellants are directed to undergo six months imprisonment. Since the appellants have already served nearly 12 years in jail, we are of the view that, as per the modified period of sentence in respect of default in payment of fine, there is no need for them to continue in prison. The appellants shall be set at liberty forthwith unless they are required in any other offence.”