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    China’s Supreme Court Tests Lighter Drunk-Driving Penalties

    Lawyer says plan opens up possibilities for judges to abuse their power.
    May 16, 2017#policy

    A test run that will loosen punishments for drunk driving in some regions of China has been met with skepticism from both lawyers and laymen.

    In a Supreme People’s Court sentencing guideline effective May 1, defendants accused of drunk driving will be exempt from conviction or criminal punishment if the circumstances are, respectively, “obviously minor” or “minor,” reported The Beijing News on Friday.

    “A file like this provides excuses for drunk drivers to escape punishment,” Zhang Huaxin, a lawyer with the firm Henan Qianye, told Sixth Tone. Zhang explained that the guideline gives judges more freedom to apply discretion in their case but also increases the potential for abuse of power — “especially for government officials, who will be removed from public office if they are charged with drunk driving,” he said.

    Duan Xingyan, a police officer in Jiujiang, a city in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, also thinks the Supreme People’s Court should think twice before loosening its grip on drunk driving. “Under the [current] strict regulations, people have developed the habit of only driving when they are not drinking; how can you loosen them so easily?” he wrote Monday on microblog platform Weibo. “If a law can be changed overnight, it is missing fundamental seriousness, not to mention the ‘spirit of rule of law.’”

    In 2011, China’s criminal law was amended to make drunk driving a criminal offense. Previously, drunk driving was regulated by administrative, or noncriminal, laws. Drivers with blood alcohol concentrations above 80 milligrams per 100 milliliters are defined as drunk and can be convicted of the crime of dangerous driving.

    Shortly after the law was enacted, Gao Xiaosong, a famous musician who drove drunk and caused a multivehicle collision, was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 4,000 yuan ($580). Since 2014, over 100,000 people have been found guilty of the crime every year, according to data from the Supreme People’s Court.

    Though the law has resulted in some punishments seen as overly strict, it also seems to have had the desired effect. From 2011 to 2016, car accidents as a result of drunk driving dropped 18 percent nationwide compared to the five years prior. Locally, the numbers look similar. Wuhan, a city in central China’s Hubei province, for example, saw a decrease of around 35 percent in “driving under the influence,” and of around 70 percent in “drunk driving” over the course of a year after the law came into effect.

    Online, Weibo users have expressed concerns that the court’s plans may cancel out the gains of previous years. “This is not just cutting a small opening in the law; it is blurring the borders of right and wrong,” wrote one user. “Is it because more government officials have been caught [driving drunk] recently?” questioned another.

    “The new document is misleading to the public, as it suggests the law is no longer strict on drunk driving,” said Zhang, the lawyer, who added that he feared local governments being flexible with punishments would cause the number of drunk-driving cases to go back up.

    Whether this comes to pass will be evidenced over the next half-year — the period designated by the Supreme People’s Court for the trial run. It has ordered all high courts to designate several local courts to be testing grounds for the new guideline.

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Police officers use a device to test a motorist’s blood-alcohol level in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, June 17, 2014. Zhao Bin/VCG)