Seizure of Motor Vehicles and Violation of Human Rights

By Deeksha


The seizure of vehicles by police officers has been a matter of great legal concern in recent years. The police stations around the country are now being converted into dumping yards for seized vehicles with these confiscated vehicles gathering dust over a number of years.[i]

Section 102 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (CrPC) empowers the police officer to seize any property which may be alleged or suspected to have been stolen or which may be found under circumstances which create suspicion of the commission of any offense. However, the power of the police officer under the aforesaid section is discretionary in nature hence creating no mandate on the police officer to seize such vehicles in all the cases of theft, robbery, murder, etc. However, once the suspected vehicle is seized by the police officer, it is compulsory on his part to prepare a report of seizure and send it to the court.

Section 457 of CrPC deals with the procedure that needs to be followed upon the seizure of the vehicles by the police officer.  However, this section does not set out a very detailed process in respect to the disposal of the seized vehicles. It only provides that the Magistrate may make an order under Section 457(2) of CrPC to dispose of or deliver the property to the person entitled to the possession of the property on the conditions which the Magistrate deems fit. The use of the word ‘may’ in the section has serious repercussions and therefore, special attention needs to be given to the language of the section. The Magistrate is under no obligation to pass the order respecting the disposal or the delivery of the property to the person entitled to its possession during the pendency of the trial or inquiry. The discretionary powers of the Magistrate raise serious concerns for the police officers as well as for the person who is entitled to the possession of the vehicle. Since there is no mandate on the courts for the disposal or delivery of the vehicles to its owner, the vehicles continue to remain in the possession of the police officers for the years on end till the final judgment is pronounced by the courts. In rare cases, however, the court may release the vehicle within no time.

The confiscation of the vehicle for such a long period of time is problematic for the person who is entitled to the possession of the property as well as the actual owner of the property for two reasons. Firstly, such a person and the actual owner of the property are denied the right to enjoy the use of his property for all these years because it takes years especially considering the pathetic state of the Indian Judiciary to dispose of cases.  Secondly, through all these years, the vehicle loses its market value and is depreciated to an extent where it’s no longer in any condition to be driven on the roads. Therefore, by the time the vehicle is released, it is reduced to a pile of junk thus exposing the actual owner of the property to serious losses for which he would never be provided any compensation for there is no provision in the act for the same. Also, the Magistrate under Section 457 can only decide the question relating to the immediate possession of the property. The actual ownership has to be decided by the Civil Courts. Again, once the order of the release of the vehicle has already been passed by the courts during the trial or at its conclusion, the legislation does not provide a time limit within which the police officers are obligated to deliver the property to the person who is entitled thereof.

Section 127 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 empowers the police officers to tow away the motor vehicles which are abandoned or attended on any public road and recover the cost of removal from the owner of such vehicles. This is a new provision in the 1988 Act and was not there earlier in the 1939 Act. Section 136 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 empowers any officer authorized by the state government to inspect any motor vehicle involved in an accident provided that if the vehicle is removed, the same shall be intimated to the owner of the vehicle and shall be returned to the owner, driver or the person in charge of the vehicle after the completion of the formalities within 24 hours. However, neither the section nor the Act provides for the formalities that are required to be undertaken by the police officers for the release of the vehicle which puts everything at the discretion of the police officers. The provision, therefore, is capable of being misused by the police authorities because most of the times people are not aware of the legal processes to be followed in case of the seizure of the vehicle and therefore end up being the victims of the malpractices by the authorities on the pretext of completion of formalities.

Unfortunately, there are no uniform guidelines in place under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, to ensure the speedy release of the seized vehicles. According to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the implementation of provisions of Central Motor Vehicle Rules and Motor Vehicle Act including traffic police and RTOs comes under the purview of State Transport Departments/ Union Territories. However, there are no such guidelines under the State Transport Departments to ensure their speedy release either. As and when the release order of the seized vehicle is received in the police station from the competent authority, the vehicle is released.[ii] Moreover, there is no online mechanism in place to keep track of such seized vehicles. Therefore, visiting the police stations and going through the bulky and lengthy records about such seized motor vehicles is the only resort left when any such information about the seized vehicles is sought to be obtained. Again, there is no sound and reasonable criteria for determining any motor vehicle as an unclaimed motor vehicle. In practice, a motor vehicle is said to be unclaimed if no person has come forward as the owner of a vehicle. However, this criterion is indeterminate and unclear as it does not mention any minimum time duration for which the police stations are compulsorily required to wait for the owner of a vehicle to step forward and establish his claim over the vehicle in case the release orders for the vehicle have been passed by the competent authority.[iii] Coming up with something like this for determining the criteria of an unclaimed vehicle is irrational for the very definition of an unclaimed vehicle suggests that an unclaimed vehicle is a vehicle whose owner had not turned up to assert their right and claim over that property. Where no such person had come forward as the owner of the vehicle, such an “unclaimed vehicle” is disposed of after obtaining the approval of the competent authority. These provisions no doubt give us a fair idea about the mechanism of seizure and the release of the motor vehicles.

The Apex Court, however, from time to time has emphasized that the powers under the CrPC should be exercised expeditiously and judiciously so that owner of the article would not suffer because of it remaining unused or by its misappropriation; court or the police would not be required to keep the article in safe custody; and if the proper panchanama before handing over possession of article is prepared, that can be used in evidence instead of its production before the Court during the trial.[iv]The Court has also directed all state governments and Union Territories to ensure macro implementation of the statutory provisions for a speedy release of the seized vehicles. The Director-Generals of Police has been directed to ensure that the activities of every police station, especially in disposal of the seized vehicles, were taken care of by the Inspector-General/Commissioner of Police/Superintendent of Police concerned.[v] Much depends upon the orders from the competent authority and the owner of the vehicle has not been given adequate rights to make sure that the seized vehicles are released on time and he is not deprived of its use and enjoyment for long due to unnecessary delays and laches.

[i]Speak up Delhi: Piled-up impounded vehicles – A common site at police stations, DNA, (Aug. 6, 2018),

[ii] An RTI filed by the Author with the Police Stations of Mumbai and Delhi reveals the same.

[iii] Id.

[iv]Sunderbhai Ambalal Desai v. State Of Gujarat, 2002 Supp(3) SCR 39.

[v]General Insurance Council & Ors v. State Of A.P & Ors, (W.P. (C) NO. 14 of 2008).

[The author is a fourth-year student of Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai, with a keen interest in issues pertaining to human rights.] 


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