State Prosecutor Reprimands Israel Police for Lax Enforcement of COVID Restrictions

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Police officers enforcing coronavirus regulations at a checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem, September 2020.
Police officers enforcing coronavirus regulations at a checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Senior officials in the State Prosecutor's Office have reprimanded Israel Police's top brass, who they say avoid enforcing criminal statutes against violators of coronavirus regulations, arguing that selective enforcement could lead citizens to complain of discrimination.  

Data obtained by Haaretz shows that only four indictments have been handed down for “an action that is liable to spread illness.” Two were issued during the first wave in the spring, and two others during the latest wave of infection.

Officials have also complained that they’ve only seen one case brought before them of a person providing misleading or inaccurate contact tracing information to the authorities, that case having been the one involving Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel.

Police said in response to a query that they have handed out hundreds of tickets for violations. But this may be misleading, as this figure includes only those who asked to face a judge rather than simply pay a fine.

Prosecution officials cautioned the police that if they continue to turn a blind eye to violations committed by ultra-Orthodox citizens, other Israelis will be able to argue discrimination on the part of the state when they are prosecuted for such violations.

In a conversation between officials in the State Prosecutor's Office and the police, the latter complained that the Justice Ministry’s legal advisory department provides complicated and unintelligible interpretations of the legislation passed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and the government keeps amending the rules.

While the officials agreed these complaints may be valid, they say they don’t fully explain the lack of steps taken by police to enforce the law.

The procedures for enforcement as outlined by the office involve a two-track system for police, which includes the possibility of charging people suspected of violating restrictions. In more severe cases, such as quarantine violations or illegal gatherings whose attendance surpasses the legal limit, the police could investigate and hand over its findings to the prosectuors' office to decide whether charges should be filed.

In more minor cases, such as interfering with a police attempt to disperse an illegal gathering, police may file charges without consulting with the office.

When the pandemic first broke out, a prosecutor was assigned to each district to handle indictments related to the coronavirus crisis. Shlomo Lemberger, a deputy state prosecutor, instructed this staff to give top priority to coronavirus-related cases. The supervisor for coronavirus-related cases in the State Prosecutor’s Office is the director of its cyber division, Haim Vismonsky.

In data he provided to police, Lemberger broke down in detail the cases in which a criminal investigation should be opened, and stressed that such cases should not be handled administratively, or via the handing out of fines. One of the reasons for these clarifications was to avoid having a person pay a fine that would prevent them from facing criminal charges.

Police ticket a protester in Tel Aviv, October 10, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The violations he referred to were was a confirmed COVID case breaking quarantine, lying to contact tracing authorities, or planning and holding a large event. Lemberger also instructed police as to what exactly they should investigate, “whether the organizer was warned ahead of time and whether it's their business and whether it’s a repeat offense.”

Yet, despite these instructions since the start of the crisis, it appears that the police have avoided taking criminal enforcement measures against those endangering the lives of others, opting instead for administrative steps.

Data being published here for the first time shows that police have opened 157 criminal investigations for violations of coronavirus laws, but have not filed a single indictment in any of these cases.

Police have given the prosecutor's office files the results of 16 investigations into people suspected of an action that could spread the virus, so that a decision could be made on an indictment. But sources in the office say there were many flaws in these investigations and that evidence was missing. The sources said these investigations led to four indictments and that another is anticipated in the coming weeks.

Haaretz has learned that police had reached agreements with the ultra-Orthodox community to allow mass events, without the state prosecutors’ knowledge. State prosecutors said these agreements were in violation of Lemberger’s instructions and that such agreements would encourage those who violate the rules to claim they’re the victims of discriminatory enforcement. Haaretz has also learned that the police and prosecutors have decided not to take any measures against senior figures in ultra-Orthodox society who urged followers to violated coronavirus rules.

A source in the Health Ministry told Haaretz that two months ago that the ministry had complained to police that many people were not cooperating with contact tracers and even lying or misleading them, actions which amount to a criminal offense. Contact tracers were urged to file complaints to police in instances where they suspected such a crime has been committed.

The source said the ministry was unsure of how many such complaints have been made, but estimates there have been many. But thus far, police have turned over just one such case to the prosecutors, that of Minister Gamliel, in which it has been determined she did not mislead authorities.

The Israel Police said in response: “Contrary to claims, police have been monitoring and enforcing the coronavirus regulations for a long time in every place, city, neighborhood and sector where restrictions are in place. Police follow a uniform enforcement policy and enforcement takes place without regard for the identity or group identity of the violator, including the issuing of summonses alongside preventive warnings and explanation.”

“In appropriate cases police open criminal investigations including where they suspect an act has been committed that could spread infection,” the police added. “Since the start of the year, many investigations have been opened on this issue and in appropriate cases the files are sent over to the prosecutors for review and further decision. Regardless of this, police prosecutors have issued hundreds of indictments involving coronavirus violations on issues within its jurisdiction. The police will continue to enforce the coronavirus regulations for the sake of public health and safety.”

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