The Supreme Court has imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on the Centre for not replying to a plea seeking directions to the police and investigating agencies to specify guidelines on seizure, examination and preservation of digital and electronic devices and their contents, The Hindu reported on Sunday.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and AS Oka asked the government to file the response within two weeks and added that it will be taken on record after the Centre pays the cost.

The direction was passed on November 11.

The court was hearing a writ petition filed by five academics – Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Ram Ramaswamy, Savitribai Phule Pune University professor Sujata Patel, professor of Cultural Studies at Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University Madhava Prasad, professor of Modern Indian history at Jamia Millia Islamia Mukul Kesavan and theoretical ecological economist Deepak Malghan.

The petitioners have sought several directions to be given to the investigating agencies and the police, including permission from a judicial magistrate before accessing or seizing electronic devices and specifying how the material is relevant or linked to the alleged offence.

In a counter affidavit filed at the last hearing in the case on August 5, the Centre had stated that the plea was not maintainable. However, the court was not satisfied with the government’s response and had asked the Centre to file a fresh response.

“The counter affidavit is not complete,” the judges had said. “Saying not maintainable, etc., is not enough.”

The case will now be heard next December 5.

The plea

In the case of urgent seizures, the petition submitted that reasons for not seeking permission should be provided to the owner of the device in writing. The owner of the electronic device should not be forced to reveal passwords, ideally, a copy of the hard drive should be taken and not the original, and the hard disks must be examined in the presence of the owner of the device.

“The powers of search and seizure, particularly because they engage fundamental rights, ought to be therefore read and supplied with adequate safeguards such that they are not abused to defeat such rights,” the petition stated, Live Law reported.

The plea also mentioned that several persons from whom devices have been seized in alleged offences registered in the recent past belong to the academic field or are noted authors, Bar and Bench had reported.

“The academic community does and stores its research and writing in the electronic or digital medium, and the threat of damage, distortion, loss or premature exposure of academic or literary work in the event of seizure of electronic devices is considerable,” the petition added.