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The Magistrate Is Bound to Record the Guilty Plea of the Accused, Failing Which, the Conviction Stands Nugatory: Kerala High Court

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The petitioner was convicted by the Judicial magistrate’s first-class Court- I, Parappanangadi, Tirurangadi Police Station. The incident that led to the registration of the crime occurred on 02.06.2014 at about 10:15 A.M when the accused allegedly obstructed the procession carried out by the Thrikkulam Government High School, Chemmad, in connection with the school admission festival and assaulted some volunteers. Owing to this incident, the accused were charged with the offenses under sections 143, 147, 148, 341, 323, 324, 353 read with section 149 of the IPC and section 35 of the Kerala prevention and disturbances of Public meetings act, 1961. The accused were convicted by the trial court after they pleaded guilty, in the premises of the court. Upon conviction, the accused were sentenced to pay a fine for each offense. The petitioners challenged the judgment on the ground that the procedure adopted by the trial court in convicting the accused, after they pleaded guilty was patently illegal. 

Arguments made by the learned counsel of Petitioners 

Sri D. Anil Kumar, the learned counsel of petitioners, submitted that the conviction of an accused based solely on the fact that he pled guilty, results in the conviction without a trial and therefore, the magistrates are bound to ensure that the plea is voluntarily made by the accused and not under duress. Also, that it’s unambiguous and made after duly understanding the ramifications of such a plea. He went on to elucidate meticulously, that a “monosyllabic yes” cannot be undertaken as an answer to the pointed question, as to whether the accused has committed the offense or not. He apprised the court of the fact that the trial court did not make him aware of the aftermath that awaits them after they plead guilty to the charges brought against them. Because of this,  the accused was denied appointment, despite the inclusion of his name in the ranked list of constables(Telecommunication).

His submissions were not a blow in the air, as he mustered them, by relying on the judgments passed earlier on this concept. The first case that he put before the Hon’ble Bench was of Judi Anand Gupta v/s State of Andhra Pradesh was delivered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. He proffered that a mandatory requirement is that the magistrate is duty-bound to record the guilty plea as it is a matter intended to aid the administration of justice. Thwarting the respondent’s counsel to rebut his arguments, he cited the case of Surath Chandra v/s state, wherein it was held that “ the magistrate is to record the admission of guilt and that the order passed by the magistrate is not final as the same is subject to revision by the superior court. But, the superior court cannot independently conclude the matter if the magistrate has not recorded the admission of the accused ”. 

Whilst wrapping up his arguments, he stated that in the case of Mahant Kaushalya Das v/s State of Madras , the Apex court set aside the alleged guilty plea, as the trial court failed to record the admission of the accused.

Arguments made by the learned counsel of the Respondents

The learned Public Prosecutor, Sri T.R Renjith, put forward the contention that there is limited scope for interference with the judgments, where the conviction is made by the Magistrate, based on the admission of guilt by the accused. He might have believed in the philosophy of “ a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, as he did not make any valuable or noteworthy argument and kept on circling the contention he had made in his opening argument. 

Court’s Observation 

On scrutinizing the diary and the records brought before it, the court recognized that the trial court framed the charges against the accused and read them over to the accused, firstly, on 09.03.2017. Thenceforth, the accused were asked whether they had committed the offense, to which they answered in negative. This plea of not guilty was recorded and after a few adjournments, the case was taken up again on 24.04.2018, and the accused were asked the same question, but this time they replied in affirmative. Surprisingly, in the questionnaire containing the replies given by the accused, the answer of the first accused was not entered. The court blatantly stated that the guilty plea was recorded casually. It shed light on the fact that Section 241, which talks about the Conviction on plea of guilty is not a mere formality. The procedure prescribed has to be followed strictly, as the same results in the conviction without trial. The court stated that going by the meanings of the words “plea and guilty”, the term “pleading guilty” should require a positive and informed act of admitting all the elements of the offence/s. Mere lip service or a monosyllabic ‘yes’, in reply to a pointed question by the court, cannot, under any circumstance, be equated with, or accepted as, pleading of guilt by the accused.

Court’s Decision

The court allowed the criminal revision petition and set aside the conviction and sentence imposed on the petitioner. It also gave out a few guidelines that should be complied with by the judges, before acting upon the pleading of guilt by an accused:

The magistrate should form the charge under sec 240 CrPC, specifying the offenses alleged against the accused, the charge should be read over and explained to the accused,  the accused should be asked as to whether he wants to plead guilty of the offense with which he is charged, the accused should plead guilty after understanding the seriousness of the allegations and the implications of pleading guilty, the plea should be voluntary and expressed in unambiguous terms, the magistrate should record the accused’s plea of guilty in the words of the accused, to the extent possible, the magistrate after considering all the relevant factors should exercise his discretion and decide whether to accept the plea or not if the plea is accepted, the accused can be convicted and suitable punishment can be imposed.

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