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p>CHATAN, Okinawa — Okinawa police Tuesday filed a complaint with the Marine Corps, protesting the interference of military police in an alleged off-base shoplifting incident.

According to Okinawa prefectural police, four military police officers arrived Sunday at a clothing store in the Mihama district of Chatan, where two teenage sons of Marines were being held outside by two sales clerks. The MPs handcuffed the teens and refused to let Okinawa police take them into custody when they arrived at the scene.

The local police officers demanded the boys, ages 16 and 17, be turned over to them, but the MPs refused, an Okinawa police spokesman said.

“The act by the military police officials greatly hindered our investigation,” said the Okinawa police spokesman. “We want a justifiable explanation of the action taken by the military police. We deem it as a matter of grave concern.”

Marines denied there was a custody problem.

“The suspects were detained by U.S. military police before the Okinawa City Police arrived on-scene,” 1st Lt. Judd Wilson said Tuesday in an e-mail response to Stars and Stripes.

“The Okinawa City Police stated that they would contact the suspects at a later time.

“The suspects were then taken into U.S. custody. ... The Marine Corps is fully cooperating with the Okinawa City Police and will make the suspects available for Okinawa City Police investigators to conduct their investigation.”

Wilson would not comment on what, if any, response the Marines had to the Okinawa Prefectural Police complaint.

Okinawa police said the incident began about 3:30 p.m. when three teenagers walked into a store in the American Village shopping area and a 17-year-old walked into a fitting room with two pairs of jeans.

According to a police report, the boy returned only one pair of jeans and gave them to a clerk before leaving the store.

“I got suspicious when I saw he returned just one pair of jeans and I could see a sales tag sticking out of his pants,” said the 30-year-old sales clerk, who did not want to be named.

The clerk and other store employees surrounded the trio and waited for Okinawa police to arrive.

“We tried to ask them about stealing, but they became violent and we held them for the police,” the clerk said. During the furor, a third boy ran away.

The military police arrived first and handcuffed the remaining teens, the clerk said. It is unclear who notified the military police of the incident.

“They discovered the 17-year-old was wearing a stolen pair of jeans under his old pants and two new T-shirts stuffed into its pockets,” he said. “They were questioning the teenagers and handcuffing them when the Okinawa police arrived.”

The items allegedly taken from his store were valued at 16,900 yen (about $169), according to the clerk. After the Okinawa police arrived, a discussion ensued concerning who should take custody of the suspects, the clerk said.

“The Okinawa police demanded the custody of the teens, but the military police officers refused without providing any explanation,” the police spokesman said. “About 60 people had gathered and there was an argument between the police, but it was not heated.”

Just as the MPs began to leave with the teenagers in tow, someone spotted a bag the 16-year-old allegedly had been carrying. It contained three new T-shirts allegedly stolen from another clothing shop, the police report stated.

On Monday, the 16-year-old voluntarily appeared at the police station for questioning and denied shoplifting, the police spokesman said. On Tuesday, the 17-year-old was questioned. Neither teen was detained.

The third boy remains at large.

Dispute in shoplifting case tests SOFA rulesThe custody dispute over two alleged teenage shoplifters comes at a time when the formation of joint patrols of popular hangouts is being discussed by U.S. and Japanese officials as a means to curb misbehavior by Americans connected to the U.S. military.

Okinawa police are opposed to the joint patrols, citing possible problems when the patrols have to detain suspects. They say Sunday’s incident proves their point.

“From the beginning, we have maintained negative stance on the issue,” a Okinawan police spokesman said Tuesday.

Under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, Japanese authorities have jurisdiction over all SOFA-status personnel arrested by Japanese police for crimes committed outside the bases. Americans arrested by the military police on the bases remain in military custody until their indictment in a Japanese court.

The SOFA gives the U.S. military jurisdiction in offenses solely against the property or person of other SOFA members or in cases arising out of the performance of the suspect’s official duties.

“It was obviously wrong for military police officers to arrest and take custody of the suspects,” said Tetsumi Takara, professor of law at the University of the Ryukyus Graduate School of Law.

“Under the reported circumstances, the Okinawa police had the right to exercise police power, not the military,” he said. “Responding to the scene before Japanese police does not give military police a right to exercise their police power outside military installations.”

A Marine Corps response to a Stars and Stripes query concerning the incident did not address the SOFA issue.

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