Bharath Booshan Aggarwal v. State of Kerala

Forest Act, 1961 (Kerala) – Sections 2 (f), 27 (1) (d), 61A, 69 – Forest Produce Transit Rules, 1975 (Kerala) – Rule 3 (iii) read with Rule 23 – “forest” – “forest-produce” – sandalwood – Confiscation by Forest Officers in certain cases – Presumption of culpable mental state – the State had to show, that the forest produce was illicitly removed, or was illicitly in the possession of the accused, and in either case, that the same was within his knowledge. This foundational fact has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Thereafter, the accused has to establish, a credible or reasonable explanation.

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. For a court to so conclude, the prosecution had to, in addition, prove beyond reasonable doubt, the foundational fact that the accused had knowingly removed the forest produce illicitly. It is here, that the presumption under Section 69 cannot apply; it merely directs a presumption that the forest produce belongs to the government.

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. Such a leap of reasoning is not justified, given that the appellants had furnished a series of documents explaining how they had sourced the oil in question. The State’s absence of diligence in producing those materials (which were in its possession) and proving that they were without credibility, cannot result in a conviction. Nor could the court have concluded adversely that the appellant’s participation in the auction of the seized goods and their purchase, implicated them. There can be several reasons for such a conduct, including their wish to fulfil contractual obligations. This court is of the opinion that the interference by the High Court, with the acquittal recorded by the Sessions Court, in this case, is not warranted. [Paras 28 & 29]