Court rules disturbing road traffic punishable

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Court rules disturbing road traffic punishable

In a 9-0 unanimous decision, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled yesterday that punishing rally participants who disturb road traffic is constitutional. The issue surrounds a disputed constitutional provision that had baffled some lower courts.

The provision, Article 185 of the Korean Constitution, states that “anyone who disturbs traffic by damaging or blocking roads or through other means is subject to up to ten years in prison or a 15 million won [$13,146] fine.” This article was the basis that courts used in penalizing protesters for disturbances surrounding the 2008 candlelight vigils against renewed U.S. beef imports. “The decision was made because it is the Constitutional Court’s duty to draw a clear line on the penalties which follow traffic violation charges,” said a court official.

Last May, the Seoul Central District Court requested a constitutional ruling on the matter when it was trying to make a judgment on a man named Gang, who participated in a 2007 rally protesting the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. The Seoul court said that the meaning behind the part of the law on damaging or blocking roads “through other means” was not clear. At the time, the court said, “If the disturbance is within a level that a third party can bear, rally participants can’t be penalized because they exert their freedom to protest.”

Observers say the court’s decision yesterday will give greater leeway for individual courts to make their own rulings on matters concerning Article 185. “We only judged whether Article 185 was constitutional or not. We did not discuss which particular laws would be applied to different traffic violations,” said Noh Hee-bum, a spokesperson for the Constitutional Court. A similar ruling was made by the Supreme Court in November 2008 that said that rallies or demonstrations which disturb road traffic so severely that they make it impossible for vehicles to get through violate the road traffic disturbance act.

Experts say that there will remain some confusion. The Constitutional Court said that “citizens with common sense and a general understanding of civil law will be able to decipher which actions are prohibited.”

In 2006, the Daegu District Court ruled that protesters who blocked a road for around five minutes were guilty of violating the road traffic disturbance provision. Also last year, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that protestors who marched on the main road in the Gwanghwamun area for around 500 meters (1,640 feet) were guilty of violating the article.

“The decision does not mean temporary road blocks happening unintentionally during legal rallies should be punished,” said Jeon Sang-hyeon, a research officer at the Constitutional Court.


By Choi Sun-uk [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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