Supreme Court revives assets case against Andhra Minister, wife

Preliminary probe not always mandatory in corruption cases against public servants: Bench

The Supreme Court on Friday revived a disproportionate assets case against Andhra Pradesh Education Minister Adimulapu Suresh and his wife while holding that the CBI need not always conduct a preliminary enquiry before registering an FIR against public servants in corruption cases.

A three-judge Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud set aside a decision of the Telangana High Court in February 2020 to quash the corruption/disproportionate assets case against Mr. Suresh and his wife, T.H. Viajayalakshmi, an Income Tax Commissioner.

The High Court had reasoned that the CBI had straightaway registered the FIR without bothering to first conduct a preliminary enquiry into the couple’s “known sources of income” like income tax returns, election affidavits or information submitted to the Government under the Central Civil Services Rules. The High Court had found the corruption charges “prima facie unsustainable” after going through these sources of income on its own.

Differing with the High Court, Justice Chandrachud, in a 64-page judgment, held that a preliminary enquiry is not mandatory before registering an FIR against a public servant for corruption if the CBI felt that the information it has received discloses a cognisable offence.

“We hold that since the institution of a preliminary enquiry in cases of corruption is not made mandatory before the registration of an FIR under the Code of Criminal procedure, the Prevention of Corruption Act or even the CBI Manual, for this court to issue a direction to that effect will be tantamount to stepping into the legislative domain. Hence, we hold that in case the information received by the CBI, through a complaint or a ‘source information’, discloses the commission of a cognisable offence, it can directly register a Regular Case instead of conducting a preliminary enquiry, where the officer is satisfied that the information discloses the commission of a cognisable offence,” the Supreme Court held.

Facts, circumstances

The court did not, however, take away the value of conducting a preliminary enquiry in an appropriate case. “The need for a preliminary enquiry will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. Even when it is conducted, the scope of a preliminary enquiry is not to ascertain the veracity of the information, but only whether it reveals the commission of a cognisable offence,” Justice Chandrachud noted.

An accused cannot demand preliminary enquiry as a “matter of right”, the court explained.

“A preliminary enquiry is valuable in corruption cases not to vest a right in the accused but to ensure that there is no abuse of the process of law in order to target public servants,” the court underscored while setting aside the High Court decision.

Justice Chandrachud also dismissed contentions raised by the couple that the CBI had no jurisdiction to register a case in the State as Andhra Pradesh had withdrawn general consent in November 2018.

“The FIR has been registered in Chennai, and that the general consent by the State of Tamil Nadu still stands,” the court held.

Besides, the judgment said Ms. Vijayalakshmi is an employee of the Central Government and Mr. Suresh is alleged to be an “abettor”.

The court, however, refused to adjudicate and rather left open the arguments regarding the jurisdiction of the Telangana High Court and whether the FIR could have been registered against Mr. Suresh without the consent of the Speaker (since he is a sitting MLA).

“At this stage, we do not think it is necessary for us to adjudicate them and we are leaving these issues open without commenting upon their merits,” the judgment said.

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