Typo in lab report landed Nigerian man in jail 18 months ago, court sets him free

A Nigerian national who was arrested in October 2020 spent more than one year behind bars due to a typographical error in a lab report. The assistant director of a forensic lab had falsely categorised drugs found in his possession to be contraband under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.

The Bombay High Court on Wednesday granted bail to the man and asked the Maharashtra Home Secretary to determine the compensation for his unreasonable incarceration as the material found on the Nigerian was never contraband.

Justice Bharti Dangre told the prosecution that if the Maharashtra government does not take a decision by August 12, then “this court will determine the quantum of compensation.”

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The court was hearing a bail plea filed by a 27-year-old Nigerian who was arrested by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of Maharashtra Police on October 23, 2020.

The team, while conducting a personal search recovered what was purported to be cocaine weighing around 116.19 grams and a pouch containing saffron coloured heart-shaped pills weighing around 40.73 grams and pink coloured pills purported to be Ecstasy tablets weighing about 4.41 grams. All this was in commercial quantities and the seized drugs were sent to a forensic science laboratory for Chemical Analyses (CA) testing.

When the CA report came, it was stated that the drugs found on the person were not Cocaine or Ecstasy but Lidocaine, Tapentadol and caffeine. However, the report by the Assistant Director of the Forensic Lab stated that Lidocaine and Tapentadol drugs “fall under the NDPS Act.”

Advocate Ashwini Achari appearing for the Nigerian in the lower court, had argued that the drugs found in the possession of the accused do not come under the purview of the NDPS and so the accused should be granted bail. However, the lower court said that since the assistant director of Forensic Lab on February 8, 2021 said that the drugs do come under NDPS, the accused cannot be granted bail.

The Nigerian had challenged the bail order of the lower court in the Bombay High Court in 2021, which finally came up for hearing on Wednesday. Achari had pointed out the same issue before the high court and Justice Dangre asked the government pleader to inform the court about the correct position, whether the drugs did come under the banned drugs schedule or not.

During the hearing on Wednesday, the public prosecutor said that the assistant director’s letter of February 8, 2021 had a “typographical mistake” and a year after sending that letter he had realised his mistake and had addressed a communication to ATS. In the corrigendum sent to the ATS, the assistant director had clarified that the material found on the Nigerian national did not fall under the preview of NDPS.

Justice Dangre said that this “must be looked at seriously” since the Nigerian would not have been detained after February 2021 if not for the report.” The bench said, “the liberty of a citizen is of paramount importance and the fulcrum of every citizen of this country.” The bench said that people in charge of law-and-order situations have a higher responsibility.

The prosecution opposed the bail while stating that the accused had prior records which included a case under the NDPS act itself. However, the court said that this merely cannot be a reason to keep the Nigerian behind bars and it is for the state to follow the procedure of law for even a foreign national.

“Let the state home department come up with a proposal on how the state will compensate the Nigerian who was incarcerated due to this one mistake. Let the state determine the quantum of compensation,” said Justice Dangre while adding that the order has to be brought to the notice of the additional chief secretary home department immediately.

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