This article is written by Amit Garg of National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. This article explains the procedure for investigation in case of unnatural death as under Section 174 of CrPC.
Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is a legal provision that deals with the procedure that the police and the magistrate need to follow in cases of suicide and unnatural death.
When a person does not die due to the natural circumstances, a person is considered victim of unnatural death. Some of the causes of unnatural deaths are accidental death, murders, animal attack, complications of surgery, suicide and many more.
Suicide can be defined as intentional killing or causing one’s own death. Suicide is not permissible under Indian Law and so Section 309 of Indian Penal Code lays down the punishment is any person attempts to commit a suicide. If a person attempts suicide, then he shall be imprisoned for a term of one year of charged with a fine as per the court’s discretion or both. There have been several attempts to remove Section 309 of the IPC but the attempts seemed to have failed. Now with the incoming of The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, attempting suicide is no longer a crime in India.
Why Unnatural Death?
If a person dies naturally, then there lies no suspicion so as to the death of the person. But in case of unnatural death, the death is caused due to circumstances which needs to be explained and examined. There lies a obligation on the state to secure the health and life of every citizen of the country. If any crime is committed, the crime is against the state. If a person dies due to unnatural circumstances, the state is burdened to identify the cause of death and if there lies a suspicion as to the cause of death, the state must take appropriate steps to punish the guilty. In order to provide for the procedure in case a person dies unnaturally, Section 174 was created that lays down the procedure the police officer and the magistrate must follow i case of untimely deaths.
Inquest Report under Section 174 CrPC
For the purpose of the unnatural deaths, the executive magistrate upon the intimation by the Station House Officer or some other Police Officer specially empowered by the State Government, shall prepare an inquest report which shall contain the minute details regarding the cause of death of a person. Inquest report is prepared by District Magistrate, Additional District Magistrate, Sub-divisional Magistrate, or Mandal Executive Magistrate especially empowered in this behalf by the State Government when the deaths are sudden and unexplained.
The deaths that the Section 174 talks about are:
- Animal attack,
- Death by machinery,
- Or death under circumstances raising reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offense.
For preparing the report, the magistrate shall be investigating the cause of death. In the report, the magistrate must describe the apparent cause of death where he shall describe the smallest of details that he comes across upon investigation of the dead body. Some of the details that the magistrate must describe are:
- Nature of surrounding where the dead body is found.
- Any wounds, fractures, bruises, and other marks that may be found on the body. The magistrate must state the manner in which any wound or injury or any other mark happened to be on the body, whether the mark is by birth, or otherwise that caused the death of the person.
- The marks if caused by any weapon or an instrument.
In the case of Kuldeep Singh v State of Punjab, the Supreme Court has held that the contents of the inquest report cannot be treated as an evidence, but they can be looked into to test the veracity of a witness.
Duties of a Magistrate under Section 174
Section 174 lays down the duties that a magistrate must do upon intimidation by the police officer of the cases of unnatural death. The police officer is bound to give intimidation to the nearest Magistrate who is empowered to hold inquests, when he receives an information regarding the unnatural death of person.
- The foremost duty of a Magistrate is to determine the cause of unnatural death. The magistrate shall examine and body and upon investigation conclude as to the reason which caused the death of the person. The death maybe caused by any reason as mentioned in the Section 174 (1) of CrPC.
- Since Section 174 is very limited in its scope, therefore it is restricted to the suspicious circumstances that caused the unnatural death of a person and the magistrate has no scope or authority under this section to trace the person who has so caused the death. In the case of Radha Mohan Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court held that section 174 is limited in confined to the ascertainment of the apparent cause of death. The magistrate is therefore bound by the limited scope of Section 174 and does not have to trace the person who has caused the death or determine who assaulted the dead person or in what manner or under what circumstances, etc. It is duty of the magistrate therefore to not mention the name of the accused on the inquest report. It will lead to the report being held unsustainable.
- In case no foul play is found in the death of the person, the dead body must be handed over to the legal heirs of the deceased.
- In cases where there is suspicion over the death of the deceased, then the dead body must be sent to the Government Medical Officer for post mortem.
- The magistrate need not examine all the witnesses while performing investigation for a cause of unnatural death. In the case of Shakila Khader v Nausher Gama, the apex court held that for the purpose of preparing the inquest report, there need not be examination of all the witnesses as the purpose of the inquest is only to establish the cause of death. If a person’s name is not mentioned in the inquest report, it does not lead to the assumption that he was not an eye-witness to the incident. An inquest report is concerned with establishing the cause of death and only evidence to establish it need to be brought out.
- The report must be prepared by the magistrate in a prescribed format. But if a report is no prepared in a prescribed format, the report cannot be declared as unacceptable.
- The magistrate must conduct the investigation in presence of two or more respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood. In case when no resident is there on the spot or when no one volunteers to be a witness of the investigation, the inquest report may be prepared without the presence of respectable citizens.
- On completion of the report, the magistrate must get such report signed by the police officer who informed him of the death and the other persons as well who were part of the investigation. The report must be then forwarded to the District Magistrate or the Sub-divisional Magistrate.
In the year 1983, there was a large number of cases reported of deaths caused because of the demand for dowry. Woman who could pay the demand after marriage were either brutally treated or they were murdered. In order to control the inflammatory situation of dowry death, the Parliament inserted Section 304-B in the Indian Penal code by the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986. Section 304-B of IPC says that if the death of a woman is caused by such bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances or if she is subjected to cruelty or harassment for demand of dowry and if such death or act of cruelty is caused within seven years of marriage, then the husband or his relative will be deemed to have caused her death.
The parliamentarians also inserted Section 498-A in the Indian Penal Code by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983), which penalizes cruelty by husband or his relative on a woman for any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand, which forces her to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to her life.
The criminal amendment act of 1983 also inserted cl. 3 in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to curb the increasing incidents of dowry deaths. This sub-section says that if the death of a woman is caused within seven years of marriage and if there is any reasonable suspicion over the death of the woman that an offence has been committed under Section 304-B and 498-A of the IPC in this regard, the police officer should subject to such rules as the State Government may prescribe in this behalf, send the body for post-mortem examination by the nearest civil surgeon, over the request made by any relative of the deceased woman.
The police in order to exercise this discretion must fulfill two conditions:
- Death of woman is caused within seven years of marriage.
- A request is made by any relative of the woman in this behalf.
If the state of the weather and the distance admit of its being so forwarded without risk of such putrefaction (the process of decay or rotting in a body or other organic matter) on the road as would render such examination useless, the body may be forwarded to other qualified medical man appointed in this behalf by the State Government.
Sub-section (3) provides that if the police officer has no doubt over the cause of death, he has the discretion of not sending the dead body for medical examination. The discretion must be exercised prudently and honestly.
Police Investigation in case of Suicides
The incoming of The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 has decriminalized suicides. Section 115 of the said act overrides the provision of Section 309 of IPC; the person committing suicide shall be presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise. So, now a person cannot be arrested for making an attempt to commit suicide and thereby no FIR. there is no restriction on filing of a FIR in cases of abetment to suicide. If a person commits suicide, firstly it is the duty of the Medical Examiner to determine the cause of death of the person whether it is caused due to natural, accidental, homicidal or suicidal. After the determination that the death is caused by suicide, the police officer need to step up and perform the necessary functions. He shall investigate into the matter and determine the reasons of the suicide.
It is the duty of the police officer to collect evidence so as to the manner of death due to suicide. The evidence may be physical, documentary or circumstantial. Physical evidence includes fingerprint, blood, etc. Documentary evidence includes testimonials or records that are on paper. Circumstantial evidence includes chronological presentation of facts.
If the investigation states that a person has abetted the suicide, a FIR shall be lodged against such person and he shall be arrested. If the police are reluctant to file a FIR, then a private complaint with the judicial magistrate court under Section 156(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure can be made and the magistrate may direct the police to investigate and lodge a FIR.
If the investigation for a suicide is wrongly ruled, then family of the deceased will be burdened with unnecessary grief. Therefore, the investigation must be done with utmost care.
In a nutshell, Section 174 is very limited in scope its lays down the procedure that a police officer must follow on the unnatural death of a person. When an unidentified dead body is found, the police officer shall inform such matter to the magistrate who shall investigate into the cause of death of the person and upon such investigation, prepare an inquest report that shall include the details that the magistrate has found during the investigation. The section also lays down the requirements that the magistrate must fulfill for preparing an inquest report that shall specify the cause of death of the person. The section does not lay down the procedure for tracing of the accused. The section also provides for special performance on the part of a police officer in case of dowry death, i.e., death of woman within seven years of marriage for the demand of dowry. Thus, this section is confined to unnatural deaths and dowry deaths. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, Section 174, cl. 4.  (2005) 3 RCR 599 (P&H).  (2006) 2 SCC 450.  1977 AIR 1294.  AIR 1975 SC 1324.  Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, Section 174 cl. 2. Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 306.