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  • With the high-profile freshman mired in controversy, SI.com's legal analyst examines the situation's next steps.
By Michael McCann
November 07, 2017

UCLA freshman LiAngelo Ball and his Bruins teammates are in Hangzhou, China to play Georgia Tech in the team’s season-opener this Friday—except Ball, along with fellow freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, will probably miss the game. In fact, they might miss other Bruins games when the team returns home to the States. And it won’t be because these players suffered injuries or illness. It will be because they are still in China—and possibly in a Chinese jail.

The three players were arrested on Tuesday for shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store. The arrests, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, followed interviews by about 20 local police officers with UCLA players while the players stayed at the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou. The Louis Vuitton store is located next to the hotel and, particularly given the high value of much of the store’s inventory, most likely contains security cameras throughout and around the store.

The three players were seen taken away from the hotel in a police vehicle. On Wednesday morning, they were reportedly released on bail.

Shoplifting can be a serious offense in China

In the U.S., potential charges and accompanying penalties for shoplifting depend on the value of the items stolen and whether the defendant has a criminal record. Although the laws of each state and the predilections of each sentencing judge play important roles in sentencing, a person convicted of shoplifting items worth under $1,000 often isn’t sentenced to jail. This is particularly true if the defendant has no criminal record. Such a defendant is usually only ordered to pay a fine or perform community service. In contrast, a repeat shoplifter who steals higher-value items could be looking at months or even years behind bars.

China adopts a similar system for shoplifting, although one with potentially longer prison sentences. According to the Routledge Handbook of Chinese Criminology, minor crimes, such as petty theft and prostitution, are often handled through so-called “administrative punishments.” An administrative punishment is one imposed after the police determine that a person is guilty. A basic administrative punishment is some combination of up to 15 days in jail, fines and warnings.

As an additional type of “administrative punishment” in China, a person accused of petty theft or similar crimes can face “Reeducation through Labor,” or RTL. Such a punishment appears reserved more for repeat offenders. It can carry up to a four-year sentence in a reeducation facility (jail).

It is unknown at this time what kinds of items Ball and his teammates are accused of shoplifting, but we know that the victimized store is Louis Vuitton. This is a high-end retail store with locations across the globe, including on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Indeed, Louis Vuitton is described as a “fashion house” that retails “luxury” items. A quick scan of the store’s website shows many men’s items, such as sunglasses and shoes, that cost several hundred to several thousands of dollars. In other words, one who steals from a Louis Vuitton store probably has stolen high value items.

This is potentially worrisome for the UCLA players, since theft of higher-value items can lead to prosecution in the formal Chinese criminal justice system. Such a system is like the U.S. criminal justice system, except with fewer rights for the accused. For example, in a criminal trial, defendants’ calls for witnesses are—according to the Handbook of Chinese Criminology—“routinely rejected.”

Potential sentences for theft in China can be multiple years in prison, depending on the circumstances of the crime and the criminal records of the defendants. More serious penalties apply to robbery, although it does not appear that the UCLA players are accused of that. Robbery is different from theft in that it involves use of force or coercion to deprive another of property. Theft, in contrast, tends to describe shoplifting, since it involves the simple stealing of another’s property.

Even if Ball retains a top criminal attorney, he’d have better chance of swishing a half-court shot than being found not guilty: According to The Washington Post, Chinese prosecutors have a 99.9% conviction rate. Just as discouraging, according to the Handbook of Chinese Criminology, is that “almost all [convicted defendants] receive prison sentences.”

Role of the U.S. State Department

Being arrested is never a good thing, but an arrest while in a foreign country presents even greater challenge.

As a starting point, Ball and his teammates are subject to the same laws of other defendants in China. They may be accustomed to certain legal rights as American citizens, but those rights don’t extend beyond American soil. This is true even though the players are presumably in possession of U.S. passports.

The players should also not expect the U.S. embassy in Beijing or the nearest U.S. consulate’s office in China to arrange for their freedom. American diplomats in China, like those in other countries, honor the sovereign nation’s rules of law. They also do not perform the function of serving as attorneys for arrested Americans, nor do they post bail for arrested Americans or guarantee to the host country that arrested Americans will appear in court at a later date.

American diplomats can, however, help the UCLA players by attempting to monitor their treatment and health while behind bars (if they are incarcerated for any length of time). The consulate’s office can also offer names of local English-speaking attorneys.

The U.S. State Department is limited in what it can share about Ball and his teammates. The federal Privacy Act requires that the players give their written consent to the government before any disclosures can be made.

China’s interest in basketball and the Ball family may help LiAngelo Ball

It’s been said that the popularity of basketball in China has skyrocketed in recent years. The NBA generates substantial broadcast revenue through Chinese fans watching NBA games. Meanwhile, the Chinese Basketball Association has employed former NBA stars like Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas. It’s also been speculated that Ball’s younger brother, high school phenom LaMelo, might skip college and play in China while waiting out the NBA’s 19-year-old age requirement. Likewise, the Ball brothers’ father, LaVar, might be interested in expanding the Big Baller Brand into China.

Also, President Donald Trump visits Beijing on Wednesday and will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The timing of the players’ arrests is thus far from ideal, though perhaps the President can put in a good word for them. To that end, the players’ prospects for returning home with their teammates would be greatly enhanced if President Trump asks President Xi to show them leniency.

All of this means it’s possible that the Chinese government might prefer a relatively low-key and fast resolution to the players’ shoplifting charges. If that holds true, perhaps Ball and his teammates will face an administrative punishment of a criminal warning as well as a requirement that they publicly apologize and make restitution to Louis Vuitton. In that scenario, they would be on their way home later this week. Whether they would then face discipline from UCLA head coach Steve Alford is another story, but whatever that punishment might be, it would sure beat spending time in jail in a foreign country.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA and My Life in Basketball.

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