While United States sources like Stars & Stripes do not have confirmation up on their websites, Japanese news sources are reporting that a longstanding grievance of Japanese who live near U.S. military bases has been resolved in a manner that dramatically extends the reach of Japanese law enforcement authorities (E).
Previously U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense civilians who caused accidents due to intoxication would have to be handed over to U.S. authorities if the accused could argue he or she was "on duty" at the time of the accident. Since the definition of "on duty" could be extended to off-base receptions and parties, dozens of U.S. service personnel and civilian contractors had had to be handed over to be U.S. base authorities, where the accused would be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- if the accused was a member of the armed services. Civilian employees tended to fall through the cracks, as they are exempt from trial in military courts.
The handing over of suspects has been a constant source of frustration for local law enforcement, local citizens, prefectural governments and the national government. The issue of immunity for civilian employees of the Department of the Defense reached a breaking point this past January, however, when a 24 year old DOD civilian returning from an offbase job and driving drunk crashed head on with a car, killing its 19 year old driver. Under the Status of Forces (SOFA) agreement the young American was handed over to U.S. base authorities, who decided that the proper punishment for causing a fatal accident was the suspension of the young man's driving privileges for five years.
The rage of Okinawan citizens and the government of Okinawa was intense. The Government of Japan, encouraged as always to act in order to keeping intact the possibility of moving Futenma Marine Corps Air Station assets to a replacement facility to be built at Henoko, sought either a revision of the SOFA (an unlikely prospect, as this would open the possibility of reopening all the SOFA's the United States has with governments all over the world) or a reinterpretation of the application of the SOFA that would mollify Okinawan anger.
Last month, Foreign Minister Gemba Koichiro announced that the U.S. and Japan had negotiated a new, narrow formula whereby if a civilian DOD employee driving drunk caused a fatal or severe injury accident, and, after being handed over to U.S. base commanders, was determined by said commanders to be not prosecutable for a criminal offense, the said suspect would then be handed over to Japan prosecutors for trial under Japanese law (J).
It was under this tight bureaucratic fiddle that prosecutors sought an indictment of the 24 year old American over the January vehicular death of the 19 year old.
Despite the fiddle, U.S. military personnel arrested in drunk driving accidents off base would still be tried in U.S. military courts. Furthermore, the question of what would happen to a civilian in case of a drunk driving accident not involving death or a serious injury remained an open question, with the degree of severity of injury likely to be a point of contention.
On Friday, however, U.S. and Japanese negotiators came up with a sweeping solution to the problems of U.S. base personnel and drunk driving accidents. According to the new agreement, driving while drunk and causing an accident immediately ends one's ability to claim immunity under the SOFA, no matter whether one is an armed services member or a civilian employee or the accident has caused death or severe injury (J).
Rather than trying to find a work around a specific problem (a bureaucratic solution) the Japanese and U.S. sides were able to establish a principle by which present and future cases could be judged without question (a political solution).
Good for them...and good news for the people of Okinawa.
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