Haim Shapow, 64, from Rishon Letzion, has a hobby he likes – ordering products online from Ali Express. “Likes” might be an understatement: He’s ordered hundreds of packages from Ali Express. “I’m like a little kid. I wait for the package to arrive and I open it right away in the car. I can’t help it,” he says.
But to Shapow’s surprise, he discovered over the past year that some people think that his hobby is a danger to the public. His fondness for opening packages sent him on a Kafkaesque journey through Israeli law enforcement, which pronounced him a suspect, indicted him, tried him, and a year later acquitted him
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The story begins on January 1, 2020. Around 5 P.M., Shapow, a disabled veteran, was driving his car down Bialik Street in Rishon Letzion. “I went out to get gas,” the affable native of the Soviet Union said. There was a police roadblock on the street; these were the days before the coronavirus. “A policeman came up to me and asked for my license and I gave it to him. Suddenly, another policeman shined a flashlight in the car and saw something between the seats. It was a knife, which was described as having “a 10-centimeter blade.”
What was a knife doing in the car of an older man, a lab technician by profession, with no criminal record? Shapow’s explanation: “It’s for the mail. I keep it in the car so I can open packages. I got a package just yesterday,” he told the policeman, in a conversation that was filmed by the officer’s body camera. “I open packages with it, I don’t murder people,” Shapow said.
The answer didn’t satisfy the officer and the conversation went on. Shapow repeated his answers, gesturing for emphasis. “People open packages at home, not in the car,” the officer responded, rejecting Shapow’s explanation.
From there, Shapow was taken to the Rishon Letzion police station, where he was questioned as a criminal suspect. He was accused of illegal possession of a knife, insulting a public servant and using drugs. The insult charge was added because during the long interrogation, Shapow became irritated with the officer and cursed him in Russian. The drug charge was added at the station, although nothing was found in the car except a tool for grinding tobacco.
Questioning in the interrogation room took the same route as the questioning in the street. The detective who interrogated Shapow was also dissatisfied with the notion that Shapow kept a knife in his car for opening packages. Shapow, who suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) from the first Lebanon war, was allowed to go home, but not before being fingerprinted and photographed for police records.
Five days later he was told to report to the police station to be questioned again as a criminal suspect. But the questions did not change much. “You claimed that you open packages with the knife we found in your car, but we didn’t find any packages in your car,” he was told this time. Shapow’s response – that after opening the packages he discards the packaging – remained the same too. He was sent home again.
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Three months later he was indicted in the Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court for “illegal possession of brass knuckles or a knife.” The document also stated that he was in possession of a baseball bat, not that there’s any law against this, but it may have increased the magnitude of the alleged offense.
According to the law, the maximum penalty for possession of a knife is five years in prison. In fact, the indictment, signed by police prosecutor Raz Horowitz, notes that this might be the penalty requested by the prosecution.
Now Shapow needed a lawyer. He couldn’t afford one, so he requested a public defender and was assigned attorney Avi Alfasi. Shapow appeared no less than four times in court. In between hearings, police tried to persuade Alfasi to get his client to take a plea bargain, but he and his client refused.
Last month, during the evidentiary phase of the trial before Judge Guy Avnon, it emerged that they had been right to hold out. Shapow testified in his own defense, presenting 400 receipts of purchases made from Ali Express in a few months alone. “I have a shopping obsession,” he confessed, though that was not among the charges.
The prosecutor, like the officer who questioned Shapow at the Rishon Letzion police station, wanted to understand his urge to open packages in the car. “I’m telling you, there’s no reason to open the packages in your car. You can open them at home,” the prosecutor said, according to the court record. Shapow, who had once been a volunteer in the police, didn’t lose his cool. “You’re making me laugh,” he told the prosecutor. “I feel like it. I want to know what I got.”
At the conclusion of the trial, the prosecutor insisted that even if the knife was in the car for a legitimate purpose, it was still dangerous.
The judge was not persuaded. The knife, a small kitchen knife, was much less threatening than the prosecution claimed, the judge said, declaring that he believed the accused and finding him innocent.
The entire process cost Shapos about 30,000 shekels ($9,200), not to mention mental distress, especially for a man with PTSD. “For them it was nothing, for me, it was dramatic,” he said.
This might not be the end of the affair. Police have recommended that the prosecution appeal the verdict. “I always knew there were good cops and bad cops, I just hoped I wouldn’t fall into the hands of the bad ones. Now I don’t trust them at all,” Shapow said.
Police responded that Shapow “had been caught in his vehicle with a knife and a bat, against the law, and cursed the officer who conducted a search of the vehicle although the officer treated him with respect. … Contrary to what was claimed, he was summoned for questioning during which he gave his version and the interrogation was conducted thoroughly and professionally, at the end of which an indictment was served. The court praised the conduct of the officer but decided to acquit the accused. The police have recommended that the verdict be appealed. We note that we did not ignore the personal circumstances of the accused although they were unconnected to the offense, but they should be considered when deciding on the severity of the penalty and not as evidence.”