Pune Porsche car crash: What does the law say about a minor being tried as an adult? - Hindustan Times

Pune Porsche car crash: What does the law say about a minor being tried as an adult?

May 26, 2024 08:30 AM IST

The Pune Porsche car crash case raises critical questions about how juveniles should be treated under the law, especially in cases of heinous offences.

On Sunday at 3:15 AM, a Porsche car, allegedly driven by a 17-year-old, rammed into a motorcycle in Pune’s Kalyani Nagar leading to the death of both riders. The juvenile was immediately granted bail on Sunday by the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) and was required to visit the Regional Transport Office, study traffic rules, and submit a 300-word essay on road accidents and their solutions to the board within 15 days. The bail order caused widespread uproar across the country with Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis also questioning the lenient view taken by the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB).

The Porsche car found without number plate in Pune. (PTI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
The Porsche car found without number plate in Pune. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

The public outrage led the Pune police to file a revision before the JJB, challenging the bail order. Reportedly, the police had moved an application to try the 17-year-old as an adult. Subsequently, on Wednesday, the JJB cancelled the bail of the 17-year-old and remanded him to an observation home till June 5, 2024. The case raises several questions regarding crimes committed by juveniles or minors and the legal implications of such actions.

The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 was introduced to safeguard, protect, and rehabilitate persons below the age of 18 who were accused of having committed criminal acts. Recognising the vulnerability and immaturity of children, a need was felt to treat them as a separate class from adult offenders. However, in the face of tremendous public outrage during the Nirbhaya case, wherein one of the assailants was a minor, the legislature amended the Act and introduced an exception wherein persons above the age of 16, but below the age of 18, could be tried as an adult.

So, what is the procedure to try a juvenile as an adult? The Act requires the following essential steps for this:

  1. Offences committed should be heinous i.e. have a minimum punishment of seven years or more.
  2. The child must be above 16 years but below 18 years at the time of the commission of the offence.
  3. Under Section 15, the JJB should conduct a preliminary assessment to ascertain the child’s mental and physical capacity to commit the offence, ability to understand the consequences of the offence and the circumstances in which the offence was committed. The JJB can take the assistance of psychologists and other experts. This assessment should be completed within three months. If the board concludes that the child needs to be tried for the offence, it should transfer the case to the children’s court which can try the case.
  4. The children’s court, on receipt of the report, should decide if the child needs to be tried as an adult or child. Only after it concludes that the child needs to be tried as an adult, orders can be passed to initiate the trial.

Last year, the Supreme Court in Ajeet Gurjar v. State of Madhya Pradesh held that all the procedures mandated under the Act to assess whether the minor should be tried as an adult should be strictly adhered to and cannot be bypassed.

Affirming the said judgment, this year, the SC in Thirumoorthy v. State quashed the entire trial proceedings held against a minor on the ground that the mandatory provisions of the Act were not followed The police had directly prosecuted the child as an adult without following the assessment procedure laid down in Section 15 to 19 of the Act. The Court noted that this rendered the entire proceeding illegal.

Now coming to the Porsche car crash case, the Pune police had initially charged the minor with Section 304A of the IPC i.e. causing death by negligence. This provision attracts a maximum sentence of only two years of imprisonment. He was also booked under Section 304 of the IPC i.e. culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This provision prescribes a maximum punishment of either life imprisonment or imprisonment up to 10 years. Interestingly, the provision provides no minimum imprisonment term. Thus, it does not satisfy the requirement of being termed as a “heinous offence” under the Act.

This question was raised before the Supreme Court in 2020 in Shilpa Mittal vs State of NCT of Delhi. Like the present case, that case was also regarding a road accident caused by a minor which led to the death of a person. The lawyer representing the victim argued that when the statute used the term “minimum punishment” of seven years or more, the same could be interpreted to mean maximum punishment of seven years or more. The lawyer provided a list of offences, which would not be covered either as petty offences (maximum of three years), serious offences (three to seven years) or heinous offences (crimes such as murder, culpable homicide, kidnapping with a sentence of minimum seven years or more), on a strict reading of the definition under the JJA. These were offences which did not prescribe a minimum punishment of seven years but provided a maximum of life or more. However, the Court refused to accept the argument and noted that such a reading would be akin to legislating, which only Parliament can do. Further, considering the intent of the Act, the Court concluded that an interpretation benefitting the minor must be undertaken. Until the law’s enactment, it held that such offences which did not prescribe a minimum sentence would be treated as serious offences. Thus, as per the Supreme Court, Section 304 IPC is a serious offence and whether the JJB has followed this interpretation will become clear only when the order is out.

Now and then, cases of crimes committed by minors are reported such as the Ryan International School murder. Such exceptional cases and the Pune Porsche car crash case are used to create a narrative of minors being bad actors who intentionally commit crimes to escape punishment. However, it is mostly the poor who are apprehended on the basis of scanty evidence and left to rot in remand homes or are thrown in jails.

A recent study by civil society organisation iProBono revealed that from 2016 to 2021 about 9,681 children were wrongly housed in jails instead of remand homes. The reality is whether a juvenile or an adult, the law operates differently for the rich and the poor. The latter constitutes the majority of the undertrials and convicts in India. Thus, before opting for knee-jerk responses like harsher laws, there is a need to conduct research to understand the extent of the problem. Further, merely changing the law, without changing the societal structures which give rise to these crimes is immaterial.

Parijata Bharadwaj, a lawyer and researcher based in New Delhi, co-founded the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that offered legal services to adivasis in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal.

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