Custodial Deaths Legal Penalties & Preventive Measures

Custodial Deaths Legal Penalties & Preventive Measures

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Custodial Deaths Legal Penalties & Preventive Measures

Custodial deaths have remained a persistent problem in India, with roots tracing back to the British colonial period. In recent times, there has been a noticeable increase in cases of police brutality and violence, underscoring the urgency of implementing more robust legal mechanisms to ensure law enforcement’s accountability for their actions during their official duties.

This article delves into the issue of custodial deaths, the regulations breached in such incidents, the legal consequences for custodial deaths, and strategies aimed at their prevention.

Police Brutality

Police brutality frequently results in serious harm to individuals in custody. To avert such occurrences, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies are reminded to exercise appropriate force. Additionally, media exposure and public opinion can play a role in fostering custodial violence. The tragic demise of George Floyd in the United States ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement, while the tragic passing of Jayaraj and Bennix in Tamil Nadu prompted demands for measures to deter police abuse. These incidents underscore the lack of anti-torture legislation in India.

Judicial and Police Custody

Custody and arrest are often confused, yet they have distinct meanings. Custody pertains to the temporary detention of an individual to prevent potential harm to society, while arrest involves the formal apprehension of someone by the police due to suspicion of committing a crime.

Police Custody

When a police officer apprehends an individual and brings them to a police station, it is referred to as police custody. The detainee can be held for a maximum of 24 hours, during which time the officer-in-charge may conduct an interrogation. Within 24 hours, the suspect must be presented before a judge.

Judicial Custody

In judicial custody, the accused is placed under the supervision of a local magistrate. Unlike police custody, where the suspect is kept in a police lock-up, judicial custody involves detaining the accused in a jail. Without court approval, police officers are not permitted to interrogate the suspect in judicial custody.

Custody and Judicial Remand

Custody and Judicial Remand in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in India

The CrPC includes provisions governing judicial remand and custody. Section 57 of the CrPC places a 24-hour limit on police custody. If detaining a person beyond this period becomes necessary, special permission from a magistrate, as outlined in Section 167 of the CrPC, is mandatory.

Various sections, such as 167(2), 209(b), and 309(2), grant the court the authority to order remand at different stages of a criminal trial. The maximum duration of remand varies depending on the gravity of the offense, with a maximum of 90 days for serious offenses. Should this limit be exceeded, the suspect must be released on bail.

Understanding of custodial death

Custodial death is the term used to describe the death of an individual who is in custody, either before or after their trial, and is directly or indirectly caused by actions taken by the police while the person is under their control. These incidents can occur in various locations, including prisons, medical facilities, private premises, police vehicles, or even when the individual is in the custody of the army or paramilitary forces.

While some custodial deaths may be due to natural causes, the issue becomes significant when law enforcement authorities are implicated in the death. Police may employ tactics such as pre-arrest torture, which can make it challenging to establish their culpability. Another category of custodial deaths involves “fake encounters,” where deaths happen during police operations. These cases can be difficult to prosecute due to a lack of conclusive evidence.

Human Rights Violations

Custodial violence stands out as one of the most severe violations of human rights. The Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life and liberty while expressly prohibiting the use of custodial torture to extract confessions. However, these constitutional safeguards are often ignored by authorities, including the police.

International Human Rights Framework

Several international agreements are in place to safeguard the rights of detainees, particularly those who have experienced custodial abuse. These agreements encompass:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948: The UDHR asserts that every individual should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and unequivocally prohibits torture or cruelty, regardless of geographical location.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966: This covenant recognizes the inherent right to life and firmly prohibits arbitrary deprivation of life. It also safeguards against cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of prisoners and the arbitrary arrest or detention of individuals.

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 2015: These rules discourage discrimination against prisoners and emphasize the importance of maintaining accurate records and segregating prisoners based on gender.

legal precedents in addressing custodial deaths

Several cases have established significant legal precedents in addressing custodial deaths:

Joginder Kumar v. State of U.P and others, 1994: This pivotal case underscored the vital importance of recognizing and upholding fundamental rights under Articles 21 and 22(1) of the Constitution. It established guidelines for informing arrested individuals of their rights and maintaining proper records of arrests.

J. Prabhavathiamma v. the State of Kerala and others, 2007: In this case, the court handed down the death penalty to two police personnel for their role in the custodial death of a scrap metal shop worker. The judgment emphasized the gravity of such offenses and the necessity for stringent punishment.

Yashwant and others v. the State of Maharashtra, 2018: In this instance, nine police officers in Maharashtra were sentenced to imprisonment for their involvement in a custodial death that occurred in 1993. The Supreme Court not only upheld their sentences but also extended them, thereby establishing a precedent against human rights violations in custodial situations.

Recent cases of custodial death in India

The custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix brought attention to a pervasive issue often kept out of the limelight, as many such cases are quietly swept under the rug. The media often fuels a narrative against the accused, making these cases even more challenging to address. However, the tragic demise of Jayaraj and Bennix served as a stark reminder that even law enforcement agencies can exhibit extreme brutality.

In the case of Jayaraj and Bennix, the accused passed away four days after their arrest. The father and son were apprehended by the police for allegedly operating their cell phone store during a lockdown curfew, and they were taken to Kovilpatti. Two conflicting versions of the incident exist. According to the police officials, Jayaraj and Bennix refused to close their store, engaged in a verbal altercation with the officers, and even threatened them. The police officials claimed that during a scuffle, both individuals sustained injuries that eventually led to their deaths.

On the other hand, eyewitnesses provided a different account. They stated that the police picked up the father and son on separate days and that an altercation between the victims and the police took place a day before their arrest, possibly motivating the officials to apprehend them on false charges. The brutality of the police’s actions is evident from the fact that the victims had to change their blood-soaked lungis multiple times. Additionally, Benix’s sister alleged that her brother and father were sexually assaulted by police officers using steel batons. Tragically, both Jayaraj and Bennix succumbed to their injuries.

In this case, the police officers did not adhere to proper procedures and policies, resorting to excessive force that resulted in the victims’ deaths. Enormous public protests erupted, condemning the violation of human rights and demanding justice. Only after widespread outrage did authorities take action against the culprits, suspending sub-inspector Balakrishnan, Raghu Ganesh, and police constables Murugan and Muthuraj.

In another custodial death case involving Vignesh, he and Suresh were detained by police officers during a vehicle check on April 18, 2022, where liquor bottles and ganja were discovered. Vignesh was declared dead by doctors the day after his detention. A police constable, sub-inspector, and a member of the Home Guards were suspended, and an investigation was initiated due to the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

Amidst growing public outcry over custodial deaths, the case was handed over to the Chennai Police Crime Branch-Crime Investigative Department. Six police officials implicated in the victim’s custodial death were arrested. The District Magistrate remanded them to judicial custody. The accused were charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and the SC/ST Atrocities Act.

The arrests were based on an autopsy report that revealed multiple injuries and fractures on the 25-year-old victim’s body, along with numerous bruises, particularly on his head. Deep muscle injuries, swelling, contusions, and arm injuries were also evident.

Breach of the Rule of Law

Custodial deaths resulting from police torture and violence represent a stark violation of the fundamental framework of the Indian Constitution, leading to the infringement of various constitutional provisions guaranteed by the Constitution:

Article 20(1): This article prohibits convictions beyond the scope of what is prescribed by the law at the time of the act.

Article 20(3): It prevents coerced self-incrimination and compelled confessions.

Section 163 of CrPC, 1973: This section expressly forbids the use of threats or inducements to extract confessions from the accused.

Section 24 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872: It categorizes confessions made under duress as inadmissible in court.

Section 164(4) of CrPC, 1973: This section mandates the proper recording and corroboration of confessions made before a magistrate.

Section 348 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860: This section addresses wrongful imprisonment to obtain confessions.

Sections 25 and 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872: These sections safeguard accused individuals from confessions made before police officers, with specific exceptions for cases involving new facts.

Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872: It declares confessions made in the absence of a magistrate as inadmissible.

Section 46 and Section 49 of CrPC, 1973: These sections explicitly prohibit torture, excessive restraint, or unnecessary force against accused individuals.

Laws Addressing Custodial Death in India

The escalating numbers of custodial deaths in recent times have underscored the pressing need for more stringent legislation to address this issue. However, there are existing legal provisions within the Indian legal framework to penalize the offense of custodial death:

Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC): If a police officer is found responsible for the death of a suspect while in custody, they can be charged with murder and subjected to punishment under Section 302 of the IPC.

Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code: Under Section 304 of the IPC, a police officer can be held accountable for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.” Section 304A may also be applied if custodial death occurs due to the negligence of the police officer.

Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code: Section 306 of the IPC addresses punishments associated with abetment to suicide. If it is determined that a suspect has committed suicide while in custody, and a police officer has abetted the suicide, the officer can be punished under this section.

Section 330 of the Indian Penal Code: In cases where police officers resort to violence and torture to extract confessions, resulting in serious injuries to the accused, Section 330 of the IPC comes into play. It deals with punishment for causing voluntary hurt.

Section 331 of the Indian Penal Code: If grievous harm is inflicted upon the accused during custody, it amounts to punishment for a police officer for causing voluntary grievous hurt, as per Section 331 of the IPC.

Section 176(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC): This provision empowers a magistrate to conduct an inquiry into the cause of death when a death occurs in the course of custody.

Section 176(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure: If a person dies, disappears, or if a rape is committed against a woman while the accused is in custody, an investigation is initiated, and an inquiry is conducted, either by a Metropolitan Magistrate or Judicial Magistrate, depending on the jurisdiction of the offense committed.

Section 7 of the Indian Police Act: Section 7 of the Indian Police Act grants senior police officers the authority to dismiss or suspend a police officer in cases where the officer has been negligent in performing their duties.

Section 29 of the Indian Police Act: Section 29 contains legal provisions for penalizing police personnel for negligence in the discharge of their duty. The penalty may include imprisonment for up to three months, with or without hard labor, for a maximum term of three months.

D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal, 1996

Implementation of D.K. Basu Guidelines:

  • Personnel involved in arrests and interrogations must carry identification cards displaying their name and designation.
  • A formal arrest memo should be prepared at the time of apprehension.
  • Informing the arrested person’s relatives or friends about the arrest should be a priority.
  • If the arrested person’s relatives live outside the district, notification should be sent via a “legal aid organization” in the district or the local police station after 8-12 hours.
  • The arrested individual should be made aware of their right to inform someone about their arrest.
  • An entry record of the arrest should be maintained.
  • Medical examination of the arrestee should occur within 48 hours of detention.
  • All related documents and memos should be forwarded to the magistrate of the relevant area.
  • The arrested person has the right to meet with their lawyer during the investigation.
  • Police control rooms should be established in all state headquarters and districts, with information about the arrest conveyed to the control room within 12 hours.

Preventing Media Trials

Media trials can bias public opinion and overshadow the suffering of accused individuals. These trials may also encourage police authorities to believe they are acting in the right way.

Addressing Pressure on Lower-Ranked Police Officers

Lower-ranked police officers often face pressure from higher-ranking officials to solve cases or extract confessions, leading to the use of violence. In Prakash Singh v. Union of India, 2006, the Supreme Court directed state and central governments not to create undue pressure on police authorities.

Implementation of Prakash Singh v. Union of India Directives

Formation of a State Security Commission to ensure state governments do not pressure the police. The commission should establish guidelines and assess police officer performance.

Ensuring the Director-General of Police is selected through a merit-based system for a fixed tenure of two years.

Providing the Superintendent of Police (SP) in charge of districts and station house officers with a minimum tenure of two years.

Separating the functions of investigation and law and order within the police.

Establishing a Police Establishment Board to address postings, transfers, promotions, and service matters for police officers up to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP). The board should also recommend transfers and postings for officers above DSP rank.

Forming a Police Complaint Authority (PCA) at both the state and district levels to investigate public complaints against police officers of DSP rank or higher for misconduct related to serious offenses such as grievous harm, rape, or custodial death.

Establishing a National Security Commission at the union level to create a panel for selecting and placing Chiefs of the Central Police Organizations, with a minimum tenure of two years.


To bring about positive change, it is imperative to closely monitor police actions in cases of custodial death and ensure that those who misuse their authority and resort to brutal force are held accountable. Establishing a strong precedent is essential to deter such misconduct in the future.

Given the current state of affairs, it is challenging to predict significant improvements regarding custodial deaths. However, a dedicated legal framework is needed to prosecute personnel who misuse their power and are responsible for loss of life in custody. Strict adherence to the guidelines outlined in landmark cases like D.K. Basu v. State of Bengal and Prakash Singh v. Union of India is crucial to mitigate instances of custodial death and protect the rights and dignity of all individuals in police custody.

Frequently asked question

What is a custodial death?

A custodial death refers to the death of a person who is in custody, typically under the control of law enforcement authorities, either before or after their trial. This death can be directly or indirectly caused by actions taken by the authorities while the person is in their custody.

What are the main causes of custodial deaths?

Custodial deaths can occur due to various reasons, including police brutality, torture, negligence, or the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials during interrogation or while in custody.

What are the international human rights laws regarding custodial deaths?

International instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) aim to protect the rights of detainees, including those who have suffered custodial abuse.

What is the significance of landmark cases like D.K. Basu v. State of Bengal and Prakash Singh v. Union of India in addressing custodial deaths?

These cases have established important legal precedents and guidelines to safeguard the rights of individuals in custody and to hold law enforcement officials accountable for any abuses. They emphasize the need for transparency, accountability, and proper procedures during arrests and detentions.

Read more:

Section 124A Sedition Under IPC

Difference Between IPC And CRPC

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