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Traffic sergeants don't always have the last word

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  • Published 1.09.04

The Motor Vehicles Act was the last thing on his mind when advocate Dipankar Datta was driving down Lenin Sarani towards CIT Road on August 12. But unlike most members of the public, he was well-versed in the rules of the Act. As it happened, the knowledge came in handy. His gleaming new Wagon R was stopped at the Moulali crossing by traffic sergeant Rakesh Kundu who charged him of having violated the traffic signal. His licence was seized and the advocate was asked to sign a compound slip/seizure list and pay a fine. Datta argued that he had crossed the traffic line when the signal was green. Signing the slip would amount to admission of guilt, which he was not ready to do. He would face trial in a court, he said and demanded a seizure list without the compound slip.

The sergeant refused to give him one and the advocate was told that he had no authority to either tear off the compound slip or strike off the paragraphs that said he admitted having flouted the signal.

“He was acting arbitrarily which he cannot do under the rules,” says Datta. So he refused to pay the fine and lodged a complaint at the Entally police station and later filed a writ petition at the Calcutta High Court.

The ruling went in favour of the advocate. The court observed that since Datta had agreed to face trial, the policeman should have handed him just the seizure list and shouldn’t have seized his licence unless he had reason to believe that the offender may abscond. The sergeant, the court declared, had violated the provisions of section 206 (2) of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Rakesh Kundu admitted that he did not understand the intricacies of law and that he had “acted at the instance of his superiors”.

The incident has thrown up a host of legal questions. Is an “errant” driver bound to accept his guilt? Can he challenge the slapping of a spot fine? Does the law authorise the traffic police to seize a driver’s licence? “Anybody who doesn’t accept his guilt has to be given a chance to defend himself. This is the law of natural justice, which is being denied to hundreds of drivers everyday in this city. Fortunately, I was aware of the provisions of section 206 so I could fight for my right,” says Datta. Barrister Arijit Banerjee agrees. “If law provides a procedure for settlement, why not follow it?” he reasons.

A glance at section 206 (2) and (3) of the Act and Rule 10 (2) proves that the legal eagles are right. Section 206 (2) says: “Any police officer or other person authorised (may) … if he has reason to believe that the driver of a motor vehicle who is charged with any offence under this Act may abscond … seize any licence held by such driver and forward it to the court … and the court shall on the first appearance of such driver before it, return the licence to him in exchange for the temporary acknowledgement given under sub-section (3).”

Section 206 (3) reads: “A police officer or other person seizing a licence under sub-section (2) shall give to the person surrendering the licence temporary acknowledgement therefore and such acknowledgement shall authorise the holder to drive until the licence has been returned to him.” But an “errant” driver is not under any compulsion to sign the compound slip/seizure list and is at liberty to challenge the spot fine, says Arijit Banerjee. His licence can only be seized if the policeman has enough reason to believe that he might abscond. In such a case, the reason why the licence is being seized has to be given on the slip. The only grey area, it seems, is how to determine whether the offender may abscond. In his case, Datta claims, it wasn’t difficult for him to prove his identity because he was carrying his law books and gown in his car. But his licence was seized anyway.

DC traffic Arun Kumar Sharma refuses to accept any great harm had been done. He claims that the law “empowers the police to seize a licence even if the offender wants to contest”. Skirting the provision for the temporary acknowledgement Sharma goes on to add, however, that the “sergeant shouldn’t have seized the licence without consulting us”.

“Mr Datta had violated the signal which is why he was pulled up. The sergeant was acting more on convention since most offenders prefer to sign the compound slip and pay a fine than contest. In any case, we charge just Rs 100,” he explains.

This is what’s letting them get away with murder, says Suman Chattopadhyay, secretary-general of the Automobile Association of Eastern India. “Most car owners avoid trouble. They are ignorant of the laws and want to get away with a fine,” he says.

That could change if the authorities follow the court order. It has been observed by the court that the “police authorities have failed in imparting proper training to the officers entrusted with traffic duties”. Copies of the order have been forwarded to the home department, commissioner of police and the deputy commissioner (traffic) asking them to take corrective steps.