Voice Samples: Acting on the Legislative Inaction

Have you heard of voice sampling? Forensic voice identification? As clueless were the courts until about a couple of months ago as we are about the topic. Well, that changes with the recent pronouncement by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India Shri Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjeev Khanna in Ritesh Sinha v. State of Uttar Pradesh [Cr. Appeal No. 2003 of 2012].

For starters, voice identification is the way investigating authorities identify the voice of accused person(s) and other people(s) heard to be speaking in any audio, video, recorded telephonic conversations, etc. In the words of the Law Commission of India (87th Report, 1980), “a voiceprint is a visual recording of voice. It mainly depends on the position of “formants”. These are the concentrate of sound energy at a given frequency. It is stated that their position in the “frequency domain” is unique to each speaker. Voice prints resemble fingerprints, in that each person has a distinctive voice with characteristic features dictated by vocal cavities and articulates.” For the purpose of identification, forensic experts record voice samples and then match the sample against the voice present in the audio. Based on this identification, the forensic laboratory confirms if the voice present in the audio indeed belongs to the accused or any other person(s) heard to be speaking in the audio evidence. 

For many years, the legislative inaction had handicapped the courts because of which a Magistrate could not order the recording of voice samples. It was all down to the consent of the accused, which in most cases refused to oblige. The prime contentions were specifically-

  1. Article 20 (3), protecting an accused from being compelled to be a witness against himself; and
  2. The lack of any express provision in the criminal procedure code, which could enable a Magistrate to authorize the investigating agency to record the voice sample of the accused.

The issue had come before various High Courts including the Delhi High Court in Rakesh Bisht v. C.B.I [2007 (1) JCC 482], prior to being put before the Supreme Court in 2012. A bench of two judges, Justice (Smt.) Ranjana Prakash Desai and Justice Aftab Alam heard the issue and concurred on the first question that, “If an accused person is directed to give his voice sample during the course of an investigation of an offense, there is no violation of his right under Article 20(3) of the Constitution.” The bench relied upon the State of Bombay v. Kathi Kalu Oghad & Ors. [(1962) 3 SCR 10] and Selvi and others v. State of Karnataka [(2010) 7 SCC 263]. In the words of Justice Desai, “voice sample is like fingerprint impression, signature or specimen handwriting of an accused. Like giving of a fingerprint impression or specimen writing by the accused for the purpose of the investigation, giving of a voice sample for the purpose of investigation cannot be included in the expression “to be a witness.” By giving a voice sample the accused does not convey information based upon his personal knowledge which can incriminate him.” 

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