A former public hygiene officer says it is unfair to put the blame on frontline law enforcement agents for the arrest of a 75-year-old woman who sold a piece of cardboard for HK$1.
The woman, surnamed Chu, was charged with unlicensed hawking and obstructing public space, and is facing a HK$5,000 fine and jail time. The incident sparked a public outcry, with critics accusing the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) of being “cold-blooded” and “bullying a granny.”
On Monday, the Civic Party handed a petition letter with over 14,000 signatures to an FEHD representative, calling on the department to drop the charges against Chu.
But former principal hawker control officer Mr. Lau said it is unfair to accuse public hygiene officers of being bullies.
“Frontline law enforcement agents are implementing laws written by society and lawmakers. Our duty is to do what the law tells us to,” he said during a Commercial Radio programme on Monday.
Lau said frontline officers cannot consider subjective factors such as a defendant’s background. “Frankly, it is dangerous for law enforcement agents to express sympathy. We will be walking a tightrope, because not everyone – including complainants – will look at the issue from this perspective.”
He said officers risk being accused of corruption if they do not enforce the law equally.
Rather, he said, it is the responsibility of lawmakers and district councillors to review existing policies and advise the authorities on how cases similar to Chu’s should be handled.
“District councillors have a lot of influence over issues in their own districts,” he said. “If they think that cases like this should be handled leniently, they should create guidelines accordingly.”
Lau also commented on Chu’s case, saying that the evidence present appeared to be weak.
“Hawkers do not typically sell cardboard,” he said. “I believe the grandma did not advertise her cardboard by shouting, and she did not display any price tag. Usually cardboard is sold to recycling companies – unlike hawkers selling fruit or vegetables.”
“So I believe it wasn’t an unplanned, isolated law enforcement action. Planning must have taken place,” he added. “I suspect the arrest took place after a lot of complaints and pressure [from complainants].”
A senior citizen in his 60s spotted collecting cardboard in Central told Apple Daily on Sunday that prosecution of elderly cardboard collectors is common.
“I have been arrested three times,” he said. “I had to pay a HK$900 fine in court… for selling cardboard for HK$1.”
“The government will not be lenient,” he added. “The government has power. I do not.”
Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said Saturday that the FEHD would “consider whether it can accommodate both compassion and reason” when enforcing the law.
A hearing over Chu’s case is scheduled for Wednesday. However, local media reported information from unnamed sources stating that the department is re-examining the case and that it will not rule out dropping the charges.