Public debate on drunk driving penalties as contradictions appear

More than two weeks after the amended Criminal Law took effect, which stipulates that drunk driving is a criminal offense, the Chinese public and legal experts are still debating the amendments.

The amended Criminal Law stipulates that all drunk driving incidents are considered criminal offenses, even if the act of drunk driving itself does not result in a traffic accident.

But Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Vice President Zhang Jun said courts should “avoid generalizing such a conviction.”

Zhang said that a conviction should not be solely based on whether the incident meets the criteria of drunk driving.

According to the recently revised Criminal Law, if hazardous behavior is insignificant and causes slight harm, it will not be considered as a criminal offense, said Zhang.

Some say Zhang’s comments challenge the integrity of the amendments and provide a loophole for drunk drivers who should be punished in line with the amended law.

A newly-amended Road Traffic Safety Law, which also took effect on May 1, states that anyone caught drunk driving will have their driver’s license revoked. Drunk drivers will also need to wait five years to apply for a new license and face a detention period of one to six months under the amended law.

The earlier version of the law imposed a license suspension of just three to six months for drunk drivers.

In order to help courts better handle specific drunk driving cases, the SPC on Monday ordered lower courts submit it their first two closed trial judgements of drunk drivers convicted of criminal offences, which would be “taken as a reference when dealing with such cases.”

Gao Mingxuan, a law expert, said that when discussing the Criminal Law amendments last year, some people believed making all kinds of drunk driving a criminal offense was “too harsh,” but others insisted that such a move was needed to deter people from driving under the influence.

Gao said more specific judicial explanations or guidance should be published to help judges correctly determine drunk driving cases.

However, Chen Zexian, director of the Institute of International Law under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said making all cases of drunk driving a criminal offense was not in line with the country’s judicial principle of “severity with leniency.”

“Different drunk driving cases that cause different levels of social harms should not be treated indiscriminately,” Chen said, adding that as to those drivers just over alcohol limit and whose actions did little social harm, an administrative punishment was enough, and this also could save judicial resources.

According to the current law, drivers who have at least 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood in their body are considered drunk.

As one of the largest producer of alcohol, China’s drinking culture is well entrenched.

Government statistics show that China has more than 200 million drivers, with nearly 68,000 people killed in road accidents in 2009.

In a China Youth Daily survey, 99.6 percent of people surveyed admitted that members of their family or friends had a some stage driven while drunk.

In recent years, fatal car accidents in Chinese cities have triggered public outcry and rage, with many people calling for stricter penalties for drunk driving.

In July 2009, the Intermediate People’s Court of Chengdu in southwestern Sichuan Province sentenced a drunk driver named Sun Weiming to death following an auto accident in which he was driving without a license and killed four people, which was the first such verdict in China. In the second trial, the verdict was changed to life imprisonment.

Sun’s case was deemed as “a crime against public security.”

In the same month, a drunk driver in Nanjing, capital city of eastern Jiangsu Province, hit nine pedestrians and six cars, leaving five dead including a pregnant woman.

In contrast to the public’s call for a tough penalty, the maximum sentence handed out was only a three-year prison term. The judges were constrained by the Criminal Law as it stood then.

Following the cases, the SPC issued a judicial interpretation in September 2009 that instructed local courts in what situations severe sentences should be given to a drunk driver.

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