Based on the reported details of the situation, it is unlikely that the three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China this week will face severe punishment, three professors who specialize in Chinese law told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.
ESPN reported that LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store near their hotel in Hangzhou and subsequently detained by police. According to multiple news media outlets, the three players were released on bail on Wednesday and required by police to remain at their hotel while the legal process unfolded.
Jerome Cohen, the faculty director of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said that if Ball and his teammates have been allowed to return to their hotel, it is “a very good sign.”
“This shows they’re getting special treatment,” Cohen said. “Normally, the Chinese do not give bail, certainly not this early in a case that they’re going to prosecute. … It usually is only given at the convenience of the police.”
Though many of the details of this week’s incident remain unknown, Cohen said the possibility that the UCLA players could be imprisoned for 3-10 years, as reported by Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday, is “extremely unlikely.” He believes the players will most likely be fined, which would both validate the Chinese legal system but also not interfere with U.S.-China relations.
Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, said he also believes the players will probably not face severe punishment.
“On the basis of what I know, I think the most likely outcome is that the players get sent home with a stern warning, but without serving a formal sentence of detention,” Clarke wrote in an e-mail. “They are already confined to their hotel. Perhaps the authorities will count that as a kind of time served.”
Cohen said the police are “the critical factor” in the Chinese legal process, which is one of the many ways in which the Chinese system differs from the American criminal justice system.
In China, there are essentially two tiers of punishment: Traditional criminal punishment, and administrative punishment. While criminal punishment in China can be harsh and unrelenting, administrative punishment is reserved for less-serious crimes and can consist of restitution, fines and up to 15 days in jail, at the discretion of police.
Ira Belkin, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct professor of law at NYU who specializes in the Chinese legal system, said one of the major questions in this case is the value of the goods that the UCLA players allegedly stole.
“That would determine whether the charges are criminal in nature or administrative,” Belkin wrote in an e-mail.
There are also political forces at play, experts said. Cohen believes the UCLA players were actually arrested “at an optimum time” given President Donald Trump’s trip to the country, which began Wednesday. Clarke agreed that politics could play a role in the outcome of the case.
“There’s no question that if the central authorities tell the Hangzhou authorities to handle the case a certain way, it will be handled that way,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That always makes things a bit more complicated, but in this case I think the complication is likely to work for the players, not against them.”
A U.S. Department of State official told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday that the department is aware of the reported arrests and is ready to provide assistance. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Cohen said the consular convention between the U.S. and China was crucial for the UCLA players, because it stipulates that the U.S. must be notified as soon as its citizens are arrested in Chinese territory. The agreement also provides that U.S. citizens be granted an opportunity to meet with representatives from the U.S. embassy, who can advise them and provide them with a list of attorneys in the area.
Even though the reported crime involving Ball and his teammates was minor, and the punishment will likely not be severe, Belkin hopes that a high-profile case of this nature will draw attention to the Chinese legal system, and whether alleged criminals there are given fundamental rights and due process.
“While people often think of human rights in connection with political dissidents and political speech, human rights also affect how ordinary people are treated in garden-variety criminal cases, even in what seems to be a minor case here," Belkin said.