A two-judge Bench of Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat has held that for the operation of Section 69 of the Kerala Forest Act to apply the prosecution would have to establish the fact that the accused had knowingly removed the forest produce illicitly. The Court held, "The presumption under Section 69 is with respect to not a conscious mental state, or a direction by the legislature that a certain state of affairs is deemed to exist, but with respect to ownership of the property i.e. that it "belongs to the state, unless the contrary is proved."
The Court held that in the given case, the presumption under section 69 cannot result in a presumption of culpable mental state of the accused, as it merely directs a presumption that the forest produce belong to the Government.
An appeal was preferred against the judgment of the Kerala High Court which had reversed the judgment of the Sessions Judge and restored the conviction and sentence of 3 years of imprisonment of the Appellant for the offence punishable under section 27 of the Kerala Forest Act.
In this case, the Kerala Forest Department had seized 37 cartons containing 460kgs of sandalwood oil belonging to the Appellant from the airport.
A criminal complaint was filed by the State against the Respondent who was the manufacturer and trader of sandalwood oil and subsequently 73.6 kgs of sandalwood oil was seized during a search of Respondent's premises.
The Kerala Forest Department in its complaint had alleged that sandalwood oil was a 'forest produce', and without a transit licence, its movement too was illegal.
The Kerala High Court convicted the Appellant on the ground that the Appellant had failed to account for possession of a large quantity of sandalwood oil as it could not show proper account of the raw materials collected and used to manufacture sandalwood oil.
The Appellant argued that sandalwood oil is not a forest produce. Appellant also argued that the High Court had failed to make a distinction between Section 27 of the Act which covers forest produce illegally removed from a reserve forest and Section 69 which relates presumption of ownership of forest produce. The Appellant contended that presumption under Section 69 would not apply to him as he had already discharged the burden of proof placed upon him by producing relevant documents and records relating to procurement of raw materials and license from Central Excise authorities for the manufacture of sandalwood oil.
The Apex Court after considering the evidence recorded by the trial court, observed, "There can be no dispute that sandalwood oil is a forest product. However, Section 27 (1) (d)- which enacts the offence- and which has been applied in this case, points to the offender's conscious mental state when it enacts that whoever "knowingly receives or has in possession any major forest produce illicitly removed from a Reserved Forest" would be subjected to the prescribed punishment. The presumption under Section 69 is with respect to not a conscious mental state, or a direction by the legislature that a certain state of affairs is deemed to exist, but with respect to ownership of the property i.e., that it "belongs to the state, unless the contrary is proved."
"The state no doubt has led evidence to show that the goods seized bore the labels of the appellant's firm and further that no transport licence was available. However, this per se does not establish illicit possession of forest produce within his knowledge, the Court opined.
"The High Court, in our opinion, fell into error, in holding that the presumption that the seizure of forest produce belonging to the State, automatically can result in a presumption of culpable mental state of the accused- in other words, that seizure of the goods ipso facto meant that the appellant had conscious knowledge about their illicit nature or origin, or that the accused's inability to account for a transit pass, implied that they procured the goods illegally, thus attracting Section 27," the Bench held.
In the light of these observations, the Court set aside the impugned judgment of the High Court by giving the following reasons –
1) The High Court concluded incorrectly that the result of Section 69 is a presumption that places the reverse burden of proof in respect of an offence - no such inference can be drawn from the plain text of that provision; and
2) Section 27 (1) (d) requires conscious knowledge, of the nature of the goods, i.e. their illicit origin, which compels proof by the prosecution, beyond reasonable doubt.