Introduction

The question of whether a car is a private place or a public place has come into talk during the pandemic when everyone wanted to know whether one has to wear a mask while in the car or not. In recent times there have been two judgments made which contradict each other on the question of whether a private vehicle is to be considered as a public place or not. In those two cases, the first decision was taken by Delhi High Court in the case of Saurabh Sharma and other v Sub Sub-Divisional Magistrate[1] on 17 September 2020 in which the court said that since the covid spread is contagious and the nation is in an alarming state, therefore, a private vehicle would be considered as public and even a person who is travelling alone in a private vehicle would have to wear a mask. The next decision was taken by the Supreme Court in the case of Boota Singh v State of Haryana[2] on 16 April 2021, the court said that a private vehicle will not be considered as a public place under Section 43 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act[3].

The landmark judgement in the case Satvinder Singh v State of Bihar[4] has also said that a private vehicle while in a public place can be considered to be a public place. Situations change and according to it the definition of justice changes too, therefore to understand why in just period of some months, two different judgements were taken by the court, one needs to know about both the cases and understand that when deeply evaluated, it can be seen that the judgements are taken according to the situations and therefore could see the different facets in which law works.

Saurabh Sharma and others v Sub Sub-Divisional[5]

Facts of the case- the petitioner Saurabh Sharma was travelling alone in his car and at that time he was not wearing any mask, he was going to wear one as soon as he would step out of the car but soon he was stopped by police because according to the Delhi Epidemic Disease Regulations, 2020 he was supposed to be wearing a mask in the car but since he was not, therefore, he was charged with a fine of Rs 500. Afterwards, he along with three other lawyers filed a petition against this and stated that the chalan that was issued was signed by the Executive Magistrate but there is no authority of law involved in it and it was also submitted by the petitioner that the term ‘public place’ has not been described in the notification that was released in June, therefore, there has been no guidelines which could direct people to wear the mask even while driving the car alone.

The respondents said that this can only and exclusively be decided by each state as Public and Health Sanitations comes under the second list of the VII schedule.

The court took the decision relying upon WHO and the state guidelines which stated that a person could be exposed to the outer world at any time, maybe for ventilation or for buying something while standing in the traffic.The court also said that the person when exposed to the outer world could catch coronavirus and when the person would be sitting alone in the car without a mask could still leave the droplets of the virus which could remain there for hours and when someone else would be sitting in the car could get infected The spread of coronavirus is contagious and the condition is getting worse day by day and exposing oneself to the open environment is harmful for not just one but for many people, therefore even if the person is travelling alone it cannot be said that the car is not a public place. The court referred to the mask as ‘Suraksha Kawach’ against the coronavirus. The court also did not want to interfere with the regulations which were imposed by the Epidemic Disease Act and Disaster Management.

Judgement of the case-  It was held by the court that in this case the term ‘public place’ will be interpreted with the reference to the spread of coronavirus, therefore even if there a single person in the car or any private vehicle who is travelling alone could be exposed to the risk of coronavirus which could be a threat to many people. A private vehicle that will be moving across the city will be considered as a public place and therefore all the people inside the vehicle will have to wear a mask.

The decision was not very much welcomed by everyone, there were many people who believed that the decision was not justified and there could have been other solutions like, if a person has opened the windows of a car then one should be wearing a mask or should be covering their face but when the windows are closed then the environment of the car or the private vehicle is quite private therefore at that time it should not be mandatory to cover the face[6]

Boots Singh vs The State of Haryana[7]

Facts of the case- on 28th January 2002, while S. I Nand Lal and the other police officials was having their duties over Surtia Rori Road, S.I Nand Lal received information about a jeep that had poppy straws in it. The registration number of the car was GUD-4997 and it was parked over a ‘kacha path’ on the Rori Jatna road. When the officials reached there the co-accused Major Singh had already run away, soon after the police officials started searching for the poppy straws and it was discovered that the appellants were sitting on two bags in the jeep, on further investigation it was discovered that one bag contained 39 kg of poppy straw while the other carried 36 kg of poppy straw. The officials along with these bags possessed the jeep and two 500 grams weights. During the court session, it was discovered that there was no recording of the information done in writing therefore the officials did not have any search warrant as well. Major Singh was acquitted but the appellants were charged under Section 15 of the NDPS Act. The question in front of the court was whether the jeep which was a private vehicle could be seized along with other items or not and would the private vehicle come under Section 43 of the NDPS Act. The counsel for the appellants said that since the car was the private property of Gurdeep Singh and since the police officer did not have any written information or any warrant issued against them, therefore, the case would come under Section 42 and not Section of NDPS Act. The high court ruled over the appeal and said that the case would come under Section 43 only because it deals with seizure power and public conveyance arrest.

Section 42 of the NDPS Act[8] states that an official has the right to enter and seize any property which is involved in the act of drugs, he could even break any door or other obstacles which stop him from entering the property and this could be done without any warrant but only if the time in which the warrant could be a threat to the arrest of the wrongdoers. It also claims that the official needs to report their senior within 72 hours with the copy of written information or records responsible for his belief.

Section 43 of NDPS Act[9] states that the officials have right to detain and search any individual they suspect to be in any way related to drugs and also if they suspect is having any form of drugs then can be arrested and the drugs and other material can be seized in the public itself.

Judgement of the case- the court on April 16th 2021 held that since the records and the evidence which are submitted to the court state that the vehicle belonged to Gurdeep Singh and was not registered as a public transport therefore even though it was parked in a public place it will be considered to be a private vehicle. The court also said that the case has to be considered with the outlines of Section 42 of the NDPS Act rather than Section 43 because the car was private property and not a public place therefore the accused were to be held acquitted from this offence.

It can be observed that within the span of some months, there were two different statements on the same question which were contradicting each other, in one place the judgement said that, if a private vehicle is moving across the city it will be considered to be a public place while within some months another judgement held that even if a private vehicle is at a public place it will still be considered to be private property and not a public place.

Judgement by Supreme Court

On 19th July 2019 the supreme court said that a private car can be considered as a public place while it is moving on the road, during this time the court overruled the judgement that was taken by the Kerala High Court in 1999[10] which said that a private vehicle even when on a public place will be considered to be a private vehicle. The supreme court judgements basically stated that any things which are considered to be illegal or wrong while in a public place would amount to the same repercussions even if a person does those things in a car while the car is in a public place. For example if smoking is banned in a public place so any person who would smoke in a car while the car is in a public place could be charged under the same sections as someone who would be smoking in public place. This decision was taken by the supreme court during the case of Satvinder Singh v The State of Bihar[11], the case has been discussed below-

Facts of the case-  Satvinder Singh and the other appellants were travelling from Jharkhand to Patna through their private car, when they entered in the border of the Jharkhand and Bihar they were stopped for the regular security check at Rajauli, while they were searched the officials did not any alcohol in the car but during the breath analyser test and there was a certain amount of alcohol reported in the test. At that time an FIR was reported against the appellants and the appellants were arrested and were kept in custody for two days. The appellant’s counsel appealed that they were charged under Section 53(a) of the Bihar Excise Act, 1915 but according to that act the consumption of alcohol or any other intoxicating things should be done under the territory of Bihar and since they were travelling from Jharkhand in their private vehicle, they could not be charged 2(17) of the Bihar Excise Act as to when the incident occurred private vehicle did not come under the definitions of ‘public place’ moreover there was nothing related to alcohol or any other intoxicating material was found inside the car and the Section 2(54) of Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 which included all the private and public transport under public place was not in force. Hence whatever happened was done inside a private car and outside the territory of Bihar.

Judgement by the court- the court held that the alcohol was consumed outside the territory of Bihar and therefore could not be charged under Section 53(a) but even though the vehicle was a private vehicle but since it was moving across the road and it was approachable to other people, therefore, it cannot be said to be private property and not a public place because the vehicle while moving is in public and it may come in contact with the general public around which means that a private vehicle will have access to the public while moving on the road, therefore, it cannot be said that a private vehicle cannot be a public place. 

Analysis

Law cannot be rigid with its principles. The work of the law is to keep everyone safe and provide justice to people, safety and justice differ from situation to situation and therefore there are a lot of things that are to be kept in mind before making a decision or making a judgement. The two judgments that have been recently talked about give the answer to the same question but if someone deeply read it can find the varied facts that were involved in the case and could understand why the same question having different answers can be held right. At the same time, the judgement of Satvinder Singh also holds the same judgement as Saurabh Sharma and one could easily find the similarity between the two.

In the case of Saurabh Sharma the question was whether in a private vehicle while travelling alone one is contempt to wear a mask or not, the court took the decision while keeping in mind the spread of the coronavirus and how contagious it is, it also kept all the situations that could occur and could lead to the spread of coronavirus and therefore it was held that no matter how many people are in the car, every individual is contempt to wear a mask for the safety of everyone. Satvinder Singh v The State of Bihar held the same judgement that the private vehicle while in a public place can be considered to be a public place and that was because if a person does something which is illegal in a place where the public has access to then doing the same thing inside the car while the car is moving around could be hazardous too and since the car is moving around, therefore, it still has access to public so being inside a car does not mean that the public access is not possible therefore a car can be considered as a public place.

The case of Boots Singh was filed by the appellants who were raided in their car without any warrant therefore the court held that the car would be considered a private place and therefore the charges the appellants were charged under were wrong.

One could easily observe how the facts of all the cases are totally different from each other and still the question is the same that whether a private vehicle is a public place, therefore the judgements when deeply evaluated could help one to accommodate and understand the two judgements and give a deeper understanding about the different dimensions in which a judgement is influenced and the working of the law. 

Should the private vehicle be considered as a ‘public space’ or ‘private space’

This one question has become a topic for discussion for everyone around, people have varied opinions and varied reasons for their opinion. People who believe that a private vehicle should be a private space relies upon the opinion that a person buys a private vehicle so that they have their privacy but if the vehicle will be considered as a public place then what is the use of travelling in a private vehicle and the people who believe that a private vehicle should be considered as a public space believes that since the car is in public therefore it will have its effect on the public therefore considering a public vehicle as a private space could become a threat to the safety of the common public.

There are two sides of every coin and there are benefits as well as problems of considering the private vehicle as a public space as in every situation the repercussions to be faced are different. For example, considering a private vehicle as a public space would take away privacy and comfort but if a private vehicle will be considered as a private space then it will result in an increase in crime, therefore the situation has to be considered but what can be done by the law is to give a better definition and then could have the factors which would help in different situations. This would not only help the public to understand what they are allowed and not allowed to do in public but would also help maintain a better environment and would save the judiciary’s time. Law is not science that will remain the same throughout the years, with situations the law keeps changing but that does not mean that the principles should not be there and therefore the definition of public space should be given more clarity. 

Conclusion

It can be concluded from above that the decisions taken by the court are done according to the facts and the state of affairs involved in it therefore it cannot be said whether they are right or not. But the court needs to give a certain definition that can be considered in a broader aspect so that these contradictions do not occur in the near future. The Delhi High Court decision was taken keeping in mind the safety of people from coronavirus but still many people were against it as it felt an obligation to wear a mask while alone in a car, even though the facts of Satvinder Singh v State of Bihar are quite different yet they both have the same decision as in both the cases the public safety was kept at priority while taking the judgement at the same time the Supreme Court in the case of Boots Singh said that a car is private property and therefore without a warrant it cannot be checked under Section 42 of NDPS Act. Therefore, it can be said that a car or any other private vehicle can be considered to be a private place or a public place depending upon the circumstances around and the judiciary at times may seem to contradict the judgements but the interpretation of the facts of the may help one to understand the judgements.


[1] Saurabh Sharma and other v Sub Sub-Divisional Magistrate, W.P.(C) 6595/2020.

[2] Boota Singh v State of Haryana, 2000 (2) CLR 193.

[3] Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.

[4] Satvinder Singh Saluja and others v. State of Bihar, AIR (2019) 7 SCC 89.

[5] Supra note 1.

[6] Richa Banka, Private car is a public place, masks mandatory even when driving alone: Delhi HC, Hindustan Times (APR 07, 2021 04:01 p.m.), https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/delhi-news/private-car-is-a-public-place-masks-mandatory-even-when-driving-alone-delhi-hc-101617775284405.html.

[7] Supra note 2.

[8] Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, § 42

[9] Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, § 43

[10] Ritika Jain, A private car on a public road is public place, rules SC, The Print (July 1, 2019, 7:53 p.m.), https://theprint.in/judiciary/a-private-car-on-a-public-road-is-public-place-rules-sc/256889/

[11] Supra note 4.

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