New Delhi: Forest officials have no power to order forfeiture of items like jeeps and arms seized from poachers if the offence has been compounded at the executive level, the Supreme Court has ruled.

A bench of justices D K Jain and J S Khehar ruled the power of forfeiture is vested with only the competent court and no such power can be exercised by forest officials who can merely compound an offence.

"Any power of forfeiture conferred upon the executive authority merely on suspicion or accusation may amount to depriving a person of his property without authority of law.

"We hold, as we must, that a specified officer empowered under Section 54(1) of the 1972 Act, has no power, competence or authority to order forfeiture of the seized items on
composition of the offence by a person who is suspected to have committed the offence against the Act," the Apex Court said.

The Apex Court passed the ruling while interpreting Section 54(1) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 as to whether a forest officer, who has the power to compound
offences, can order forfeiture of the seized items like vehicles and weapons used for poaching.

In this case, the Andhra Pradesh Wild Life protection officials had on July 25, 2004, intercepted a jeep from which it recovered a gunny bag containing a hunted wild boar and
three rabbits.

Since it was a compoundable offence, the officials imposed a fee of Rs 25,000 and also forfeited the jeep, torchlight, two rifles and telescope along with the seized animals.

The accused had challenged the forfeiture of the vehicle and rifles in the AP High Court which ruled that the government had no power to forfeit the articles used for poaching. Aggrieved, the state appealed in the Apex Court.

The Apex Court said Section 51(2) of the 1972 Act provides for forfeiture of the property only upon conviction of a person.

"There may be myriad reasons for a person, suspected of commission of offence, to apply for composition of the offence. What is important is not the reason for composition of the offence but the effect of composition.

"The effect of composition of offence has to be found in the statute itself. Section 54(2) provides that on payment of money to the empowered officer, the suspected person, if in
custody, shall be discharged and no further proceedings in respect of the offence shall be taken against such a person," the Apex Court said.

The bench said that in terms of sub-section (2) of Section 54, on composition of the offence, the suspected person is saved from criminal prosecution and from being subjected to further proceedings in respect of the offence.