Citation: State of Maharashtra vs Mayer Hans George 1965 AIR 722
Appellant: State of Maharashtra
Respondent: Mayer Hans George
Criminal Law is built on the foundation of two principles, actus reus (criminal action) and mens rea (criminal mindset). In general, both of these principles need to be satisfied in order to have committed a crime. For example, in a homicide by stabbing the actus reus is the physical act of thrusting the knife into the victim and the mens rea can be established by the fact that the perpetrator knows that stabbing the victim causes or is likely to cause such bodily harm that the victim is likely to die. The State of Maharashtra vs Mayer Hans George case outlines the significance of mens rea; and primarily illustrates exceptions to this basic tenet of criminal law.
● The respondent was a German native, and boarded a plane from Zurich on 27th November, 1967 that was bound to Manila, with a stopover at the Bombay Airport.
● During the stopover the respondent had refused to leave the plane, after which the customs officials would board the plane and search him. The respondent was found with approximately 30 kilos of gold with him .
● Under the authority given to them by Section 8(1) of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, the Reserve Bank of India had, via a notification dated 25th August, 1948 granted general permission to carry gold on through transit.
● Unbeknownst to the respondent, there was another notification dated 8th November 1967, which was published on 24th November 1967 in the official Gazette, had revoked the general permission granted by the notification dated 25th August, 1948.
● The respondent was subsequently charged under Sections 8(1) and 23(1) of the Foreign Exchange Regulations Act, 1947, and Section 167(81) of the Sea Customs Act, 1878.
● Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947
Section 8(1): The Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, order that, subject to such exemptions, if any, as may be contained in the notification, no person shall, except with the general or special permission of the Reserve Bank and on payment of the fee, if any, prescribed bring or send into [India] any gold or silver or any currency notes or bank notes or coin whether Indian or foreign.
Section 23(1): Whoever contravenes any of the provisions of this Act or of any rule, direction or order made thereunder shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both, and any Court trying any such contravention may, if it thinks fit and in addition to any sentence which it may impose for such contravention, direct that any currency, security, gold or silver, or goods or other property in respect of which the contravention has taken place shall be confiscated.
Section 24(1): Where any person is prosecuted for contravening any provision of this Act or of any rule, direction or order made thereunder which prohibits him from doing an act without permission, the burden of proving that he had the requisite permission shall be on him.
● Sea Customs Act, 1878:
Section 167(81): If any person knowingly, and with intent to defraud the Government of any duty payable thereon, or to evade any prohibition or restriction for the time being in force under or by virtue of this Act with respect thereto acquires possession of, or is in any way concerned in carrying, removing, depositing, harboring, keeping or concealing or in any manner dealing with any goods which have been unlawfully removed from a warehouse or which are chargeable with a duty which has not been paid or with respect to the importation or exportation of which any prohibition or restriction is for the time being in force as aforesaid; or if any person is in relation to any goods in any way knowingly concerned in any fraudulent evasion or attempt at evasion of any duty chargeable thereon or of any such prohibition or restriction as aforesaid or of any provision of this Act applicable to those goods, such person shall on conviction before a Magistrate be liable to imprisonment for any term not exceeding two years, or to fine, or to both.
● The Respondent had been acquitted by the High Court, however the prosecution appealed.
Is mens rea a factor in this case? Does the Appellant’s ignorance of the change in policy have a bearing on the case?
● Apart from Section 167(81), none of the statutes specify intention. The court observed that considering intention in this case would negate the purpose of the statute (i.e., prevention of smuggling). Therefore, the fact that the appellant did not intend to defraud the government is immaterial. The Court allows itself to consider intention in such circumstances only when it comes to the quantum of punishment.
● Since the change in policy was published on the 24th of November 1967, the onus was on the appellant to verify if his actions were consistent with Indian law. Mistake of Law is no excuse.
State of Maharashtra vs Mayer Hans George illustrates that mens rea can in fact be immaterial in a criminal case. The court specifies that the mens rea can be ignored if the statute doesn’t specifically call for it and/or it defeats the purpose of the statute if it is considered.
This article is written by Shashwat Singh of Jindal Global Law School.