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India: Supreme Court Upholds State Wiretap Law

(Sept. 11, 2008) On September 1, 2008, the Supreme Court of India in effect affirmed the constitutional validity of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act (MCOCA), a state law that empowered the state government to intercept telephones and use the results as evidence in organized crime cases, including terrorist cases. Previously, the Bombay High Court had quashed some of its provisions, and in response the Bombay State Government appealed to the Supreme Court. The case was heard by a bench consisting of three judges, including the Chief Justice of India.

The provisions at issue, specifically sections 13-16 of the Act, dealt with the appointment of the competent authority for trial of the offenses; standards for the authorization or prohibition of interceptions of wire, electronic, or oral communications; and constitution of a committee for review of authorization orders. The Bombay High Court quashed these provisions on the grounds that the state government had no constitutional right to enact a law on the interception of telephone communications; the Court ruled that the subject should have been governed only at the national, not the state, level.

The matter arose in the case of a financier, Bharat Shah, who was charged under the law in question for alleged links with the underworld. He challenged the constitutional validity of the stated provisions on the grounds that the state government had no jurisdiction over interception of telephone communications. A designated MCOCA court in Bombay, on October 1, 2003, had sentenced the accused to one year of imprisonment for concealing information from the police, under a provision of the Indian Penal Code instead of the MCOCA, which provided a more stringent punishment.

The ruling by the Supreme Court will hasten trial in a number of other cases under the MCOCA, including those related to the July 11, 2006, Bombay train bombings in which almost 200 persons traveling in the first-class coaches were killed and about 800 were injured. (Supreme Court Upholds MCOCA Provisions, THE HINDU, Sept. 2, 2008, available at http://www.hindu.com/2008/09/02/stories/2008090260521200.htm.)