Access to Individual Criminal History Information in India

 

imagesIndiaIndia, like the U.S., is a federal political system comprised of states. In both countries, the states have primary authority over creation, disclosure, use and collateral consequences of criminal records, albeit within a basic national framework. Police and courts both create and maintain criminal records required to carry out investigatory and adjudicatory functions. However, unlike in the U.S., Indian court records are not systematically available to the public and law enforcement agencies are generally prohibited from disclosing individual criminal history information for non-criminal justice purposes. There are no private information companies engaged in selling criminal background records to employers, landlords, volunteer organizations, and curious individuals.

In India, police records are created in dozens of local languages, making record sharing difficult, even among police departments. What’s more, police records are not fingerprint supported and often not even photo-supported. Thus, confirming an arrestee’s identity is a major challenge, especially if s/he is not a local person. The challenge is compounded by the fact that many Indians share the same name. An initiative to assign every Indian resident a national identification number is only beginning to be implemented.

There is no Indian equivalent to the U.S. Interstate Identification Index (Triple I), an electronic fingerprint-supported database that permits a police officer anywhere in the country to determine almost immediately whether a suspect or arrestee has ever been arrested anywhere in the U.S. Moreover, all public and many private sector employers are authorized by federal and state law to obtain individual criminal history information from the Triple I. By contrast, and as noted in an earlier post, Indian police are prohibited from disclosing criminal record information to non-law enforcement entities and persons.

India’s federal government has embarked on a Crime and Criminal Tracking Networking System (CCTNS) which would link every police precinct through state of the art information technology. In addition, there is a plan for state-level Crime Record Bureaus, much like U.S. state-level criminal record repositories, consisting of databases of individuals suspected, arrested, prosecuted and convicted in that state. However, these initiatives will take many years to complete. To be useful, they will need to translate and incorporate old records and be fingerprint supported.

Courts provide the other important source of criminal records. State laws govern access to and disclosure of court records. While trial court judgments are public, court files are not. Even the defendant needs the court’s permission to see the file, and special permission to copy it. A third party would have to petition the chief judge. Criminal judgments are increasingly available to the public via e-court system databases and private databases. The e-courts website is in English, while the judgment is uploaded in the local language used by the trial courts. High court and Supreme Court case judgments are sold to and reported by private publishers.

While it is not uncommon for employers to ask job applicants to disclose criminal convictions, employers rarely conduct or commission background checks, probably because there is no easy and reliable way to retrieve the information.  Firms that conduct criminal background checking services are rarely used and only for sensitive or high-level positions or to investigate prospective business partners.

Finally, in India, there is no equivalent to the U.S. federal and state on-line sex offender websites and databases.

Diwaagar Sitaraman

Diwagaar is an LLM student at NYU School of Law and an Indian lawyer who previously worked under the State Public Prosecutor at the High Court of Madras.

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