The pandemic has placed a moral and legal mandate for all to wear facemasks so as to shield themselves and others from the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that everyone has a responsibility on their shoulders to stop the spread of this deadly virus and to follow the government's orders. However, the grey areas in the laws have again troubled a few people. The grey area here is the interpretation of the term “Public Place”.
The effectiveness and enforcement of the lockdown restrictions are a focal point in bringing the no. of active cases down. The one who is not wearing a facemask in the public place will be prosecuted under sections 188, 279 and 280 of the Indian Penal Code, 1850.
Not only this, if you are found to be violating section 144 of the Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC) then you can attract a punishment of 3 years. The police under section 188 of IPC can arrest anyone who violates an order promulgated by a public servant. Furthermore, anyone seen loitering around the streets despite the government orders can be booked under Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code and can be jailed for up to 2 years or could be fined or both, without bail.
However, the question here remains as to what is Public Place? Is it defined anywhere?
Definition of Public Place
Public place means any place to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access and includes, but is not limited to, streets, highways, and the common areas of schools, hospitals, apartment houses, office buildings, transport facilities, and shops.
As per Section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, "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".
In the case of Satvinder Singh Saluja, the court clarified that the term "access" in section 2(17A) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act should be the one we should put emphasis on. The Court pointed out that Black's Law Dictionary defines 'access' as:
"A right, opportunity, or ability to enter, approach, pass to and from, or communicate with access to the courts."
On the other hand, Section 3 (I) of Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003 defines Public place as:
“any place to which the public have access, whether as of right or not, and includes an auditorium, hospital buildings, railway waiting room, amusement centers, restaurants, public offices, court buildings, educational institutions, libraries, public conveyances and the like which are visited by the general public but does not include any open space”
But before we make any stance let's first see as to how the courts have interpreted the term Public Place.
Drinking Alcohol inside a Private car amounts to drinking in a Public Place
In the case of Satvinder Singh Saluja Vs. State of Bihar, the appellant was charged under Section 53(a) of the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2016 as they were found positive in Breath analyzer Test. In order to quash the charges, the appellant contended that as per section 53(a) of the Act, the punishment will be attracted if someone is found drinking in a public place and therefore section 53(a) wouldn’t be applicable to them as they were found drunk inside a car.
Though not relevant to our topic here, the Court also held that even if a person enters the territory of the State of Bihar in a drunken state then also he will be held liable under the Act, even if the consumption has taken place outside the State.
Drinking inside a private car amounts to an offence
Kerala high court in the case of Rajendran Pillai & Ors Vs. State of Kerala held that drinking inside a private car at a public place will amount to an offence. This is because the Kerala Government brought an amendment in the Kerala Abkari Act, as per which private vehicle parked at a public place would be considered as a public place under section 15C of the said Act.
In the case of Boota Singh Vs. State of Haryana, the supreme court held that a private vehicle would not come under the ambit of “Public Place” which is given explained under section 43 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act).
In this case, the narcotics were recovered from the private car which was parked in a public place. Here the court acquitted the applicants as they were wrongly charged under section 43 of the Act which provided for the search and seizure of narcotics in the public place. The court held that:
“According to the explanation to Section 43 of the NDPS Act, a private car does not fall under the definition of "Public Place" as specified in Section 43 of the Act.”
Interpretation of term "Public Place" in cases pertaining to Covid-19 Pandemic.
Delhi HC in the case of Saurabh Sharma & Ors Vs. SDM (East) & Ors, held that it is compulsory to wear a facemask even while driving alone in your own car. The Court in order to curb the spreading of the virus held that a private vehicle will be considered as a “public place” for the betterment of people at large.
The court held that:
“ …the word “Pubic place” has to be interpreted in this case in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. To determine what constitutes a ‘public place’ the manner in which the coronavirus can spread is the crucial part”
The court observed that a person sitting inside a car has the potential to spread the virus to others.
“the droplets carrying the virus can infect others even after a few hours after the occupant of the car has released the same. There are several possibilities in which while sitting alone in the car one could be exposed to the outside world. Thus it can be said that merely because the person is travelling alone in a car the car would not be a public place.”
The court in this case held that it couldn’t interfere with the regulations passed by the appropriate officials under the Epidemic diseases act and disaster management Act.