The Supreme Court has held that a district collector is not a judge and as such cannot seek immunity from prosecution in criminal cases.
A bench of Justices RV Raveendran and JM Panchal ruled that the immunity granted to judges under Section 77 IPC would not be available to district collectors or the land acquisition officers who acquire private lands and award compensation.
"The Collector is neither a Judge as defined under Section 19 nor does he act judicially, when discharging any of the functions under the (Land Acquisition) Act. Therefore he is not entitled to protection under Section 77 IPC," the apex court observed.
The apex court passed the ruling while setting aside a Rajasthan High Court order wherein the latter had quashed the FIR registered against the Jaipur district collector in a land acquisition case.
The FIR alleges that the Collector while acquiring certain private lands had grabbed lands belonging to the Rajasthan Housing Board in collusion with some having vested interest.
The local police had registered a case of cheating and fraud against the district collector but the High Court quashed the FIR on the ground that the official had acted in his official capacity as a "judge" and as such was entitled to the immunity granted under Section 77 IPC.
The High Court, in its order, has said that "Once an agreed award is passed by the competent authority and that award acquires the status of an executable decree under the law, the evidence, which came before the competent authority on the basis of which such award is passed, cannot be subjected to investigation by the police authorities."
Aggrieved by the ruling, the land holders Surendra Kumar Bhatia and others filed a special leave petition in the apex court.
Upholding the appeal, the apex court said that only Judges (as defined in section 19 IPC) acting judicially are entitled to the protection under Section 77 IPC.
"The decision of the High Court that the FIR is to be quashed as the subject matter of the complaint related to the action taken by the Collector/Special Officer in his capacity as a 'Judge' is opposed to law and, therefore, liable to be set aside," the bench observed.
The apex court held that it was well settled that the Collector/Land Acquisition Officer while making an enquiry and award under the Act, acts only in his administrative capacity and does not in any manner exercise any judicial powers.
"In making an award or making a reference or serving a notice, the Collector neither acts in judicial nor quasi judicial capacity but purely in an administrative capacity, exercising statutory powers as an agent and representative of the Government/Acquiring Authority," the bench added.