The 17-year, 361-day old young man, behind the wheel of his father’s speeding Mercedes Benz, who hit and killed marketing professional Siddharth Sharma, 32 on April 4, 2016, will not go to jail for his crime with the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday that the act of the accused, a juvenile at the time of the commission of the offence, does not fall within the category of “heinous offences” under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 (JJ Act).
Under the act, only juveniles committing heinous crimes will be tried as adults.
Shilpa Sharma, the sister of Siddharth Sharma, said that she is devastated by the ruling but will continue her fight for justice.
“The judges said that there is a flaw in the law, but decided to not make the changes and directed the legislators to make the changes. They had the power to change it but they chose not to,” said Sharma (38), a resident of Civil Lines.
Siddharth Sharma, who was returning home from work was run over by the speeding Mercedes Benz car in the Civil Lines area of North Delhi. The driver behind the wheels, a teenager four days short of his 18th birthday was a repeat offender who had been fined thrice before for similar traffic violations. Police also found that the teenager drove without a licence and had given false information when the traffic police had fined him on the three previous occasions.
Police said that based on CCTV images, eyewitness accounts and forensic reports of tyre marks, it was established that the teenager was speeding beyond the permissible limit on the evening of the accident. The teenager’s family also allegedly convinced their driver and sent him to the police station to give a false statement claiming that he was driving the car, not the teenager.
The Juvenile Justice Act says that a juvenile can be tried as an adult in cases of “heinous” offences where the minimum punishment is seven years in jail. The juvenile justice board ruled that the accused was fit to be tried as an adult, making him the first juvenile who would be tried thus after the government amended the law. In its five-page order, the board observed that the young man was aware of the consequences of his actions and was in “no manner lacking in mental and physical capacity to commit the offence”.
In February 2019, a Delhi sessions court upheld the ruling.
However, the Delhi High Court decided against the order. Shilpa Sharma challenged the high court’s order in the Supreme Court.
“I will fight as much as I can and I will try to seek the attention of the Supreme Court on the case again,” said Sharma. “We are waiting for the copy of the order and then I will discuss with my lawyers on how to proceed with it,” she added.
In its ruling, the bench of justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose noted that the offence of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code with which the juvenile was charged did not prescribe a minimum punishment period but only a maximum punishment of life imprisonment or imprisonment up to ten years.
Consequently, it did not fall within the definition of “heinous offences” under Section 2(33) of the JJ Act as per which heinous offences are those offences for which the minimum punishment under the IPC or any other law is imprisonment for seven years or more.
The bench also noted that law does not deal with a fourth category of offences such as in this case. These are offences where the maximum sentence is more than seven years imprisonment, but no minimum sentence is prescribed or the minimum sentence prescribed is less than seven years. The court urged Parliament to address this loophole till which time such offences will be treated as “serious offences” under the JJ Act.
“..an offence which does not provide a minimum sentence of seven years cannot be treated to be an heinous offence. However, in view of what we have held above, the Act does not deal with the 4th category of offences viz., offence where the maximum sentence is more than seven years imprisonment, but no minimum sentence or minimum sentence of less than seven years is provided, shall be treated as ‘serious offences’ within the meaning of the Act and dealt with accordingly till the Parliament takes the call on the matter”, the judgment held.
“Serious offences” as per the JJ Act means offences for which punishment under any law is imprisonment between three and seven years. The possible punishments for serious offences include participation in group counselling, performance of community service or payment of fine. The juvenile can be allowed to go home after advice or admonition.
“For an offence to be a heinous offence, a mandatory minimum punishment has to be there. So any offence which does not prescribe that mandatory minimum will fall into the category of “serious offences”. The court has now made it clear in its judgment that it cannot rewrite the law and that the Act has to be read in the best interest of children and not otherwise which were arguments we had strongly advanced”, said Ashish Kumar, one of the lawyers who represented the teen.
“Offences in which maximum sentence is more than seven years but for which no minimum sentence is prescribed or minimum sentence is less than seven years have been kept out of the ambit of heinous crimes in tune with the object of the Act. If they are included within heinous crimes, a slew of offences will then become ‘heinous’ and the whole purpose of the Act will be lost. Therefore, in my opinion, the legislature should not tinker with it though the court has suggested the same,” advocate Renjith Marar said.
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