Need for proper Malkhana management in criminal justice system
A sub-inspector of police kept the seized counterfeit notes in the Malkhana as evidence in a case. After months of investigation, the officer started to prepare the charge-sheet for that case. As he went to the Malkhana to collect the fake notes to submit before the court, he found only some tiny torn pieces of those notes left by the rats after chewing them up.
This is a hypothetical representation of the evidence management system of our country. 'Property room' or 'evidence room' of police stations is commonly known as Malkhana in our subcontinent – which is a warehouse used to store seized items suspected to be connected to a crime. Valuable evidence is frequently stored in open roadsides, rooftops, makeshift tin-shed structures, corridors, or staircases in or near police stations. Often, cars worth crores are kept in dreadful conditions only to gather rust in dumping stations.
Evidence management is an integral part of the criminal justice system. While evidence plays a vital role in proving a case beyond reasonable doubt, the mismanaged or mishandled evidence results in evidentiary weakness in criminal cases. There are thousands of instances where the accused persons were acquitted for evidential infirmity.
The complexities of Malkhana management at police stations are manifold. Large volumes of evidence, absence of adequate spaces, and safe storage systems, protection and preservation of biological and/or DNA-related materials, and lack of training of Malkhana personnel are few major reasons responsible for Malkhana mismanagement.
The legal provisions regarding evidence management in Bangladesh remain ambiguous. Under section 165 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1898, the Police can seize suspicious articles in course of an investigation. According to section 170(2) of the CrPC, when a Police-Officer seizes any property in connection with a case, he has to send the property to a magistrate along with the accused. Under section 516A of the CrPC, a court can make an appropriate order for the proper custody of such property during the trial. If the property is subject to speedy or natural decay, the court may, after recording such evidence as it thinks necessary, order it to be sold or otherwise settled.
The Police Regulation Bengal (PRB) of 1943 deals with the custody of seized property, property room and its management. Regulation 525 of the PRB states, 'The Magistrate shall provide a secure room in every court to serve as a Malkhana in which all property sent to court and taken charge of by the Court Officer shall be kept.' The Regulation also specifies how any seized item related to any case, for example, jewellery, counterfeit currencies, documents, or weapons should be registered, managed, returned, or disposed of.
The Supreme Court of India, in Union of India v Mohanlal and another (2016), expressed dissatisfaction on the lack of proper Malkhana management systems. The Court directed the central government and the state governments to set up storage facilities for the exclusive storage of seized articles and conveyances duly equipped with vaults and a double locking system to prevent theft, pilferage, or replacement of seized items. The same court in an earlier case had observed that "[i]n any case, station house officers shall deposit case property in the concerned courts within a week of their seizure and the courts shall dispose them within a month."
Safe custody and proper disposal of seized articles in a Malkhana is crucial when it comes to the question of fair trial. Judicial precedents show that prosecution cases are often rendered doubtful in absence of proof of safe custody of seized articles. Such precedents set out by other countries in dealing with hazardous evidence management will come to aid when we plan to implement a proper system. Kolkata Police, for example, recently introduced e-Malkhana substituting their hundred-year-old Malkhana management system.
The news of mismanagement of Malkhanas in our police stations is frequent. However, proper guidance to address this issue is not as prevalent. An officer in charge of a Malkhana and other officials should be provided with specialised training in this respect. Every Malkhana should be renovated to meet the forensic and scientific requirements. Seized evidence should be labelled and stored properly to prevent any error, loss or damage. Labelling should include a description of the items, case numbers, date of seizure, the place from where it was seized, name of the police officer who seized the item, quantity of the item, etc. Modern identification technologies, like Bar Coding, Quick Response (QR) Code and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags should be used to identify and trace each seized item stored in the Malkhana.
A separate locker facility should be made available for valuable items. Narcotics and explosive substances should be stored in a safe and secure facility. For biological evidence, separate refrigerated storage must be available at every Malkhana, or at least in every central Malkhana. Electronic evidence will also require a specific storage area. In cities with a shortage of space, Centralised Vehicle Yards may be set up for dumping impounded vehicles. Every Malkhana should be under round the clock CCTV surveillance.
Though the PRB 1943 contains detailed instructions on custody of seized property, in the current era, there is an urgent need to revisit the provisions in light of changes in the laws, forensics technology and judicial pronouncements and to frame a written policy and bring out a procedural manual. An appropriate evidence management system is vital to an effective criminal justice system and with some simple steps, we can bring big changes.
The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.