Three UCLA freshman basketball players were released from police detention in China on Wednesday, a little more than a day after being arrested on suspicion of shoplifting, a source told Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg. The players — LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill — must remain in the team hotel outside Shanghai, a pseudo house arrest. There are no details on how or when their case may be resolved.
Just getting out of detention, though, is extremely rare and bodes well for the players, according to Chinese lawyers and legal analysts who spoke to Yahoo Sports.
The development, they say, suggests that efforts by the United States government, and more specifically the local consulate and UCLA itself, have been effective in gaining very favorable treatment for the players.
“It is a very good sign,” said Teng Biao, visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. “I feel that they won’t be jailed again.”
Lawyers in China said there is no common equivalent to posting bail in the Chinese criminal system, which in the United States allows a defendant to be released from jail while awaiting trial or a resolution of the case. In China, the system allows prosecutors to hold a person for up to 37 days before deciding whether to press charges or release him or her. In this case, it took less than two full days to get out of detention.
“It’s very rare [or] unheard of for people to get American-style bail,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher of the Chinese court system for Amnesty International.
Authorities in China believe the players shoplifted from a Louis Vuitton store near the UCLA team hotel in Hangzhou. The Bruins are in China to play Georgia Tech on Friday in the season opener. The players were arrested Tuesday after local law enforcement came to the team hotel and questioned both UCLA and Georgia Tech players before taking the three away.
The show of force at an American hotel, and the fact the police conducted an investigation after the fact, suggested to local attorneys that the police had considerable evidence against the players, either surveillance video or the discovery of the stolen goods in their room. Usually, the local police will not move on a foreigner, especially a prominent one, without significant reason.
UCLA acknowledged the incident in a statement and said it was working with “local authorities” but declined further comment.
LiAngelo Ball is the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball and the son of sneaker entrepreneur and outspoken basketball dad LaVar Ball. LaVar and his family are also in Shanghai filming their reality television show and promoting their Big Baller Brand sneakers. He canceled a scheduled press conference citing legal advice but told an ESPN reporter who was there that this “wasn’t a big deal.”
Perhaps LaVar knew what he was speaking about.
Because the Chinese have released no details about what they allege was stolen, what proof they have or what the players might be indicted for, it is difficult to speculate about what the process or punishment might be. Charges could range from the more serious robbery (which could be punishable for up to 10 years in prison if the amount of the theft climbs) to a lighter “administration violation” that might be categorized as minor shoplifting.
Factors can include the admission of guilt, cooperation, political pressure and the amount stolen (under the letter of strict Chinese law a robbery of more than about $15,000, for example, can result in life imprisonment). Everything tends to get worked out before indictments are handed down, which is why Chinese prosecutors enjoy a 99.2 percent conviction rate, according to the lawyers.
“Returning the goods, expressing remorse, admitting guilt and accepting fault and punishment can all reduce the sentence, and with a first-time offense will be important mitigating factors,” said Jeremy Daum, an attorney and research fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center based in Beijing. “I suspect that there are political calculations involved here as well, yes, and the embassy can pursue diplomatic channels.”
That could include the arrival Wednesday in China of Donald Trump. Some speculated that the Chinese will not want any kind of incident while the President is in the country. It may seek to resolve the case simply and quietly, especially within China, where news of the arrests can be kept away from the public via government-controlled media.
The quick release to the hotel suggests something is up.
“Without instructions from above, they will not let the students out easily because the authorities want to prove foreigners are treated equally here,” Wen Yu, an attorney based in Guangzhou in southern China, told Yahoo Sports. In general cases, “the Shanghai consulate can work on this but if the evidence is sound, there is not much for them to do,” he said.
Yet the players are out, albeit confined to their Hilton Hotel, which is, undoubtedly, a preferable alternative to a Chinese detention center.
Could the players see the charges lessened to the equivalent of a misdemeanor, pay a fine and head home with the team on Sunday? It’s possible but some involved cautioned against reading too much into any development.
“Right now they won’t [fly home with the team], but it could change,” a UCLA source told Yahoo Sports.
Anything can happen, the lawyers say. It already has. The case is unusual in every way.
“China does not have the same system of plea bargaining as in U.S.,” Teng Biao said. “It will be up to the [police], then the prosecutors, then the judges whether or not to detain them in the future. Generally, the process is slow, and sometimes, arbitrary. But if the Consulate has expressed their concern, it is likely for them to get a slighter or quicker solution.”
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