Written By Sam Hauser
President Donald J. Trump engaged in a Twitter controversy on November 19, 2017, when he directed one of his tweets at LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of recently arrested UCLA freshman LiAngelo Ball. President Trump’s tweet read as follows:
“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”
This came after LaVar Ball refused to acknowledge President Trump’s role in the release of his son from Chinese custody, despite an earlier display of gratitude from LiAngelo himself. Aside from the fact that these players were not – in fact – in jail, but rather on house arrest in their Hangzhou hotel, numerous news outlets were quick to analyze the assertion that these players were headed for ten-year jail sentences absent President Trump’s intervention.
On November 7, 2017, LiAngelo Ball, along with UCLA teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, were accused of shoplifting Louis Vuitton sunglasses from a mall near the UCLA men’s basketball team’s hotel in Hangzhou, China. The three players were arrested, subsequently released on bail, and ordered to remain in their hotel until the conclusion of the legal process.
President Trump, who happened to be on his way to China at the time of the incident, allegedly spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the incident, asking for prompt resolution of the matter.
On November 14, 2017, about one week after the original incident took place, the three UCLA players were on a plane back to Los Angeles. In its statement announcing the players’ return, the PAC 12 Conference thanked both President Trump and the U.S. State Department for their work in reaching a resolution.
Did President Trump Really Save These Players from Substantial Prison Time?
Given the high-profile nature of this case, many media outlets were quick to either concur or dissent with President Trump’s estimation of the magnitude of his assistance to these players. The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China sets the framework for analyzing the length of the potential prison sentence for these players.
Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China: Which Article Are These Players Culpable Under?
Under Chapter V: The Crime of Encroaching on Property, Articles 263 and 264 describe situations in which property has been wrongfully taken. Article 263 describes situations in which property has been “robb[ed] . . . using force, coercion, or other methods.” Article 264 describes situations in which a person has stolen “relatively large amounts of public or private property.” In determining which of these two Articles best fits the UCLA players’ situation, it is necessary to determine the definition of the term “rob.” If this term is defined as it is traditionally defined in American criminal justice systems – “felonious taking of personal property . . . accomplished by means of force or fear” – then it is likely that the accused players would be evaluated under Article 264, in which the term “steal” is used. Although the terms “steal” and “rob” are used interchangeably in other parts of the Criminal Law (see Articles 239 & 240), robbed is most likely meant to represent the traditional American definition here because of the qualifying statement that “force, coercion or other methods” be employed to effectuate the taking of property. This prompts the conclusion that the actions of these players would be culpable under Article 264.
What is the Likely Sentence Under Article 264?
Under Article 264, a person’s punishment for stealing property is divided into three tiers, according to the severity of the offense, namely, the value of property taken. Those stealing relatively large amounts of property will receive sentences of fewer than three years, or criminal surveillance, and can be fined in addition to, or in lieu of, these other punishments. Those caught stealing large amounts of property receive prisons sentences of 3 to 10 years, in addition to fines. Those caught stealing extremely large amounts of property would be sentenced to 10 years or more in prison. Evidently, there are no bright-line rules as to which of these tiers a particular offense might fall into. Despite the fact that Louis Vuitton sunglasses retail for anywhere between $435 and $1990, it is unlikely that theft of such an item would constitute anything more than “large amounts or property,” at the very worst.
Given the high degree of ambiguity in the Chinese Criminal Law pertaining to shoplifting offenses, and the relative unimportance of such an offense to the Chinese government, it is likely that this type of incident, absent Presidential intervention, would be handled through a mechanism known in China as administrative punishment. The value of goods taken determines whether the punishment can be administrative or criminal, according to a statement given by Ira Belkin, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct professor of law at NYU, to USA Today. Administrative punishment generally results in “some combination of up to 15 days in jail, fines and warnings,” according to Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst.
The lack of clarity in the boundaries of various tiers of punishment in the Chinese system make it difficult to determine exactly how much punishment President Trump should take credit for saving these individuals. While an administrative punishment might have been the most likely recourse for such an offense, the international diplomatic consequences of such a high-profile individual being caught in the fray might have escalated this matter to the criminal punishment system. In that event, though the likely sentence would not have been 10 years, as President Trump initially indicated, his diplomatic actions may have saved these UCLA students close to 3 years of prison time, depending on the ultimate value of the items taken.
Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China (promulgated by the Standing Comm. Nat’l People’s Cong., July 1, 1979, amended March 14, 1997), art. 263-64, 1997.
Louis Vuitton Sunglasses (last visited Nov. 20, 2017).
Marissa Payne, Des Bieler, Matt Bonesteel, & Cindy Boren, LiAngelo Ball, two other UCLA players released on bail after shoplifting arrest in China, Wash. Post, Nov. 8, 2017.
Mark Landler & Michael D. Shear, How Trump Helped Liberate U.C.L.A. ‘Knuckleheads’ From China, N.Y. Times, Nov. 14, 2017.
Matt Bonesteel & Cindy Boren, ‘I should have left them in jail!’: Trump fires back at LaVar Ball for saying he did nothing to help UCLA players in China, Wash. Post, Nov. 19, 2017.
Matt Ellentuck, LiAngelo Ball and 2 other UCLA basketball players arrested in China, explained, SB Nation, Nov. 19, 2017.
Michael McCann, LiAngelo Ball, UCLA Teammates Could Face Chinese Jail Time, Sports Illustrated, Nov. 7, 2017.
Press Release, Pac-12 Conference, Statement from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott on UCLA men’s basketball student-athletes returning home (Nov. 14, 2017) (on file with author).
Robbery, Black’s Law Dictionary (2d ed. 1910).
Suzannah Gonzales & Arshad Mohammed, UCLA basketball players arrested in China could stay for months: ESPN, Reuters, Nov. 8, 2017.
Tom Schad, LiAngelo Ball, other UCLA players unlikely to face severe punishment, Chinese law experts say, USA Today, Nov. 8, 2017.
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