To Drink or Not to Drink

Oct 15, 2020

In a recent judgment which could change the definition of a 'Public Place' in the books of law for the years to come; The Supreme Court on 29th June 2020 has stated that a private car travelling on a public road can be deemed as a 'public place' This judgment came in light of a case under the 'Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016' which prohibits the manufacturing, bottling, distribution of alcohol in the State of Bihar.

The Supreme Court Bench consisting of K Joseph, ABhushan has essentially overruled a 1999 Kerala High Court judgment which had said that a private car on a public road would still constitute a private space. The verdict can be interpreted to mean that any activity that is not allowed in a public space, such as smoking, will now not be allowed in a private car on a public road either.

The decision came in a case of Satvinder Singh vs The State of Bihar, The appellants were members of a rotary club and were travelling from Girdih, Jharkhand to Patna, Bihar to attend a meeting of the rotary club and were stopped at a checking point at a Rajauli Check Post, District Nawada, State of Bihar by one Sachidanand, Bharati, Sub Inspector Excise. Nothing incriminating nor any liquor was found in the vehicle in which appellants were travelling. The appellants were subjected to breathalyzer tests in which, as per the prosecution case, a certain quantity of alcohol was found.

In the hopes of overturning the High court of Patna's Judgment, The Appellants filed an appeal in the Supreme Court stating that a private vehicle doesn't fall under the definition of 'public place' where consumption of alcohol is prohibited as per Section 2 (17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016. The principal contention put forth in their defence is that the inclusive definition under Section 2 (54) of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 (hereinafter referred to as the 2016 Act) is not imported into the above mentioned amendment Act and therefore cannot be used.

The State of Bihar however drew the attention of the court to the fact that the appellants' vehicle was stopped on a public road and therefore the protection of being inside a private vehicle cannot be upheld. Consumption of liquor is an offence in every part of Bihar, public roads included.

As per Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016, "Public Place" means "any place to which the public has access, whether as a matter of right or not and includes all places visited by the general public and also includes any open space." According to the Court, the keyword in the definition was "access".

Any place to which the public has access, as a matter of right or not, is a public place. It observed that the public could have access to a private vehicle on the road. The court noted that 'access' had been defined in Black's Law Dictionary as "A right, opportunity, or ability to enter, approach, pass to and from, or communicate with access to the courts."

"When the private vehicle is passing through a public road, it cannot be accepted that the public has no access. It is true that the public may not have access to a private vehicle as a matter of right, but definitely the public has the opportunity to approach the private vehicle while it is on the public road. Hence, we are not able to accept the submission that vehicle in which appellants are travelling is not covered by the definition of 'public place' as defined in Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016," the court said.

As per Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, even if a person consumes liquor outside the state and enters into the territory of Bihar and is found drunk or in a state of drunkenness, he can be charged with offences under section 37(b) of the Act' the bench noted.

Though it was a partial victory for Singh as the court held that they could not be charged as per section 53(a) of Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2016 as the action of consumption of liquor had to happen within the boundaries of the state, but Singh and others could be charged with offences under Section 37. The court, therefore, ordered that the appellants shall be at liberty to file an application to discharge before the magistrate who after considering the materials on record shall decide the said application in accordance with the law.

This Decision of the Supreme Court has laid down a new mark which would further influence cases related to the Bihar Prohibition and Excise act 2016.