Jewellery stolen from Davanam Jewellers recovered by Bengaluru police. Pic: Bengaluru City Police

A woman in Bengaluru lost her golden ‘Vanki’ (armlet) and she lodged a police complaint. Police caught the thief and recovered the armlet. The cop who was in-charge of that station developed a secret desire to retain the valuable Vanki.

Next day when the complainant (theft victim) arrived at the station to collect her Vanki, she was shown a pestle instead of the armlet. The policeman cleverly played with homophones and replaced ‘Vanki’ with a ‘Onake’ (rice pounder / pestle). He convinced the complainant that the item recovered from thief was ‘Onake’ and not ‘Vanki.’

This is a story that often makes rounds in police circle. Though the story may sound quite hilarious, it tells how your stolen valuables recovered by police could be siphoned off by the guardians themselves. It is an interesting example of fence eating the crop!

A report filed by a senior police officer in last May corroborates the trend. According to a media report, then Assistant Commissioner of Police (Madivala sub-division) Shanta Kumar had submitted a detailed report on how seized stolen items were missing in Koramangala and Madivala police stations. He had suspected the police station staff of disposing the recovered stolen items illegally for money.

This being the case, how is the police department supposed to deal with theft cases? What are the legal procedures to be followed? What should a theft victim do? And what happens to the unclaimed seized items?

You will get the item back, if luck favours you!

Soon after you lose an item over theft, the first thing you will have to do is to file a complaint in the nearest police station where the theft took place. You need to have the bill related to the item if it is available, and a photo of the jewellery or the item that was stolen, which will help the cops in moving forward. The police will file a First Information Report and hunt for the thief.

Now, this process of hunting for the thief decides how lucky you are to get the property back. If the stolen item is valuable like gold or vehicle, police may try to trace the thief. But in case of mobile phone, electronic items and other not so valuable materials, police might just not bother to go behind the case.

Even in cases of stolen property like gold, not often that police dedicate their time to searching the thief. For them, it comes with justification of staff crunch and financial issues. Most of the police stations in Bengaluru face 30-40 per cent of staff shortage.

“With the existing staff, we are unable to manage day to day affairs. Then how can we go behind every theft case?” asks a police personnel who wants to remain anonymous.

Why mobile phones are not traced by cops

Another policeman from a city police station explains the ordeal faced by police in managing finance while they investigate a case. “Policemen have to travel to other cities and states as part of the investigation. Often the station inspector ends up paying from his pocket for the travel and accommodation expenses of his men who are on investigation. Sometimes the police constables who go for investigation end up shelling extra bucks for rickshaw and food for which they may not get the receipt, hence it will not be reimbursed. Though travel and accommodation amount is reimbursed, it takes 3-4 months,” he points.

This is the reason why the police never try to crack mobile phone theft cases. The person who has stolen the phone might just flee to some other part of the country after stealing the phone. Can police afford to run behind them? the policeman asks.

However, if the luck strikes you, you may indeed retrieve your belonging. When police arrest a thief randomly for his involvement in other theft cases, the property that police recover from him may also include your stolen item. In such instances, a procedure needs to be followed to get the property back.

Recovering stolen goods

If police catch a thief, he generally discloses the time and location from where he stole the items. The police then send a circular to concerned police stations asking if any complaint on particular theft incident on the day has registered. If a case has been registered, then theft victim will be informed of the recovery.

Meanwhile, they will also try to recover the stolen goods. By matching the statement of the complainant and the culprit (about timing of the incident, location, description of the stolen item, photos, bills etc), the police try to authenticate the ownership of the property.  

Police sources say that in 90 per cent of the cases, gold is melted by the time of recovery, due to which the complainant cannot identify the stolen item. Sometimes the police even resort to redesigning the gold ornament near to its original design, so that the same could be proved before the court and theft victim can claim its ownership.

Court’s nod required to claim ownership

After recovering the stolen item, police submit property form to the nearest court. The property form includes details such as FIR number, description of the property, crime, officer in-charge of the case etc. While submitting property form to the court, the police or the complainant can seek custody of the stolen item till the closure of the case.

In case of electronic items like phone, computer and perishable commodities, normally, the court grants temporary custody of the stolen item to the complainant. This is because value of the property might deteriorate by the time the case closes. It might take six to 12 months for the closure of the case.

If police take custody of a stolen item, it’s their responsibility to ensure that property is intact till the time of case closure. In case of seizure of dangerous items such as crackers and bombs, police have to take permission from the court for destruction of the seized property.

Temporary handing over of the commodity is done through the court’s interim order. The complainant/ owner has to submit an indemnity bond by paying a fee of Rs 200 to the court. In the bond, he/ she has to assure of producing the item during case hearing whenever the court asks for it. The court at the end of the trial, decides who the real owner of the stolen item is.

What if nobody claims ownership of seized stolen items?

Often, nobody comes forward to claim ownership of stolen properties the police recover from thieves. In such a case, the police tend to seek permission from court to exhibit them in property parade. The department will advertise about property parade with description of the recovered items and time and venue of the parade. The real owner of the property, even if has not filed a complaint about the theft, can visit the parade and claim ownership by producing necessary documents.

So, what if a person has lost an old gold chain which neither has payment receipt nor any document evidence? Can he still claim its ownership? “Yes, he can. Sometimes police will have to go by instinct and believe the person who comes to us claiming ownership. We will try to match his statement and that of the thief,” a police officer says.

If nobody claims ownership of the property even at property parade, then the police department disposes of such property under CrPC provisions. Police submit the list of unclaimed property before the court and request to permit to dispose it of, for want of space and value deterioration over time.

Then the court directs the department to publish it in gazette called “police gazette.” After gazette publication, the unclaimed property will be auctioned. Even during public auction, theft victims can claim the ownership by providing supportive evidence. Unclaimed ones will be auctioned and the money collected will go to the police treasury.

Lack of maintenance of unclaimed vehicles

Unclaimed vehicles are parked by the roadside, creating public nuisance in front of Koramangala police station. Pic: Akshatha M

Recently in one of the police stations in Bengaluru, 41 unclaimed vehicles were auctioned. The department could fetch just Rs 70,000 for these ‘scrap’ things. These vehicles were dumped in the police station premises from three years to minimum of eight months. Due to lack of maintenance, they were all defunct, hence the department could not expect to fetch a higher price.

It is a common sight to see old vehicles covered with dust, lying in queue or just haphazardly dumped in front of police stations. These are the seized vehicles for which no person has claimed ownership. Unlike other types of stolen property, there is certain difficulty in finding owners of stolen vehicles. The thieves after stealing vehicle, replace the number plate, chassis number due to which police cannot trace its real owner. As a result, vehicles will end up being dumped like debris in police station premises or in public property due to lack of space.

“When there is lack of space for policemen to even keep their uniforms in police stations, how can they accommodate unclaimed vehicles inside the station premises?” asks retired ACP Lava Kumar.

However, he is of the opinion that the problem could be sorted out if the department or government takes an initiative to hire a yard exclusively to accommodate seized stolen items including vehicles.

“The department can acquire land for the purpose or can utilise its own vacant property and keep the seized items in safe custody instead of causing a public nuisance. In addition, maintaining unclaimed vehicles in a better way will also yield more value to the department while auctioning them,” the retired police officer says.

How to file a complaint

If you are a victim of theft, it is important to file a police complaint in the nearest police station to the theft location. Here are some of the aspects to be noted while filing a complaint:

  • Provide clear description of the incident, including when, where (date and time) and how it happened

  • You can also specify the culprit, if you are aware of his/ her identity

  • Mention the eyewitness, if any

  • List down the items that were stolen

  • Describe the stolen item like colour, approximate value etc

  • You can provide photographs of the stolen item for easy identification and proof

  • Also furnish documents, bills to support your claims