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George Washington University Law School

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Friday, July 1, 2005

Due process in traffic law enforcement in Beijing

There has recently been quite a tempest over certain practices of the Beijing police in "remote law enforcement" (非现场执法) of traffic rules. Many streets and intersections are monitored by cameras. When a violation is spotted, the license number of the vehicle is recorded and a fine imposed. The problem is, the police never notify the violator.

There are a few ways you can discover that a fine has been imposed: (1) call the police periodically to ask, (2) go in person to the appropriate office to ask, (3) visit the police website and input your license number, and (4) wait until your annual license renewal, at which point you will be informed and required to pay up before your license is renewed.  All of these methods, of course, require that the violator take active steps.

This practice has resulted in a few cases where violators have accumulated enormous fines through repeated violations by, say, parking in a place they didn't know was illegal or going down a one-way street the wrong way every day on the way to work.

I happened to see a show on TV the other day (I am now in Beijing) where this issue was addressed; one of the guest commentators was Prof. Zhan Zhongle of the Beijing University Faculty of Law. The viewpoint of the show was pretty clear: it asked such loaded questions as "Should the police fulfill their duty to notify violators of the violation?" and "Should traffic law enforcement be about reducing violations and increasing traffic safety, or just about collecting fines?" Hmm.

As Prof. Zhan and others reasonably pointed out, not informing the violator of the violation does nothing to reduce traffic violations, which is what the prime purpose of traffic law is supposed to be. Another commentator, a professor at China University of Politics and Law (中国政法大学) whose name I regret to say I do not recall, noted that the relevant law requires the police to notify violators, but does not prescribe any time limit within which they must be notified. The Beijing police were not represented on the show -- I don't know if they were invited to send a representative.

The show also featured video shots of "traffic assistants" (交通协管员) who were secretly photographing cars from a bridge,again for the purpose of recording violations and imposing fines. These were a couple of unsavory-looking characters who attempted to stop the TV crew from recording their activities when they noticed them. There was some discussion over whether evidence gathered from such quasi-police, who have a very bad popular reputation, should be considered valid.

The Beijing police were urged to learn from Jiangsu Province, which has apparently issued a regulation stating that where notice is not given, violations (I think meaning identical violations) stop accumulating after three.

One interesting aspect to this case is that it must be discussed solely in terms of statute, policy, and notions of fundamental fairness. There is no justiciable general constitutional guarantee of due process to which the aggrieved might appeal.

Here are some web references; an English summary can be downloaded here: Download trafficviolations.pdf

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/china_law_prof_blog/2005/07/due_process_in_.html

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