Three Hong Kong police officers have won an appeal against their convictions for making false statements by omitting certain details of how they came to find drugs on a suspect some four years ago.
The High Court on Friday cleared Sergeant Ng Shiu-lung, 46, and constables Joe Tang Man-cho, 36, and Lee Hin-lai, 33, of their joint count of perverting the course of justice, for which they were each sentenced to 10 weeks in jail upon conviction two years ago.
The case stemmed from a stop-and-search operation the three officers conducted in Wong Tai Sin on December 20, 2016.
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Tang recorded in his notebook that he had conducted a search on Siu Chi-pong and found a small purse containing suspected drugs in the man's right trouser pocket, while Ng and Lee reported their colleague's find in statements.
But security footage revealed that the alleged drugs were not seized in a search of Siu's person.
Instead, the video showed Siu emptying his pockets and handing over some items to the officers before appearing to quickly throw something towards the bushes behind him.
Two of the officers were then seen searching the bushes, where they apparently found a yellow purse containing the alleged drugs.
Siu was subsequently arrested on suspicion of possessing a dangerous drug - namely methamphetamine, also known as Ice. However, the charge was dropped the following January before his case reached trial, and the full facts of the incident were therefore never fully established.
The inconsistencies between the footage and the officers' version of events were enough to prompt a judge to convict them in February of 2019.
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On appeal, the officers maintained that they had never given false statements. Their lawyers argued that conducting a "search" did not just mean frisking a suspect, but also giving verbal instructions for one to empty his or her pockets, in light of the potential risk of officers coming into contact with syringes sometimes carried by drug users.
Deputy High Court Judge Isaac Tam Sze-lok noted this was a "rather powerful" point, which the trial magistrate had failed to address in his reasons for the guilty verdict.
Tam also watched footage of the incident and observed that Siu had clearly slipped his hand into his left trouser pocket before throwing an object into the bushes.
As to whether it was the left or right pocket, the judge said the point was of no great importance to the officers and they had no reason to provide a false description.
"The court cannot rule out the possibility that the three appellants had, rightly or wrongly, believed the yellow purse was taken out from Siu's right trouser pocket," Tam said.
The officers' omission of how the drugs were actually retrieved, however, was a debatable practice and should "never be repeated", he added.
"But from the point of law, this omission does not constitute a false statement," Tam continued. "It only rendered the relevant police notebooks and statements incomplete."
The judge also noted that the three officers were of good character and prosecutors had no evidence that they would deny the episode if they were required to testify under oath against Siu.
He concluded that these points cast reasonable doubt on the officers' guilt, and ruled in their favour.
The three officers had been out on bail pending appeal since their sentencing.