Crime, Punishment, and Local Laws

by | Feb 17, 2022 | Global | 1 comment

When you move to a new country, chances are you are so busy trying to find a place to live, where to shop, and how to navigate the transportation system that you haven’t spent much time learning the laws of the land.

And that could be a big mistake.

Keep in mind, no matter how many years you have lived there, you are still often considered an outsider. But that doesn’t mean you are exempt from adhering to local and national laws. In some places, it means you are more visible as a potential target for harassment.

Having a passport from the U. S. or any other country does not buy you a “get out of jail free” card. In fact, once you leave the U.S. you are not covered by U.S. laws and constitutional rights.

Approximately 2,500 American citizens are arrested abroad each year, according to the U.S. Department of State. While at least one-third of the charges are drug-related, other charges can range from indecent contact in public to defacing a historical or otherwise protected site.

Drugs and other taboos

Drug trafficking or possession is by far one of the most grievous offenses and can land you years in one of the infamous South American hell holes of a prison.

Label those pills by Pina Messina
Label those pills by Pina Messina

Laws vary considerably among South American countries, but possession of even a small amount of “contraband” can result in long sentences.

All our deeply-held beliefs about “due process” do not apply. In many places, no bail is set for drug-related cases.

The judicial process is typically painfully slow. In some cases, you could be sentenced to mandatory prison sentences up to life, without the possibility of parole.

You may think that this only applies to recreational drug users, but it’s important to note that even your prescription drugs, common in your home country, may be viewed suspiciously elsewhere. Rule of thumb: All pills should be clearly marked and transported in their original container. Your best bet is to also carry your prescriptions with you.

Showing due respect

In all your excitement in getting up close and personal to the local culture, you need to be careful and respectful when taking photographs.

In many countries throughout the world, not only are police stations, airports, and military installations deemed security-related, but also harbors, mines, and even bridges. Photographs of demonstrations or civil disturbances are also typically prohibited.

When in doubt, ask permission.

Showing respect extends to how you treat the many cultural sites. Take the case of Greenpeace activists who, in 2014, staged a protest in Peru that ended up damaging the Nazca drawings, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government said it would press charges of “attacking archaeological monuments,” punishable by up to six years in prison.

Symbols of the country also need to be accorded due respect. In Brazil, for instance, desecrating the flag means that you can be arrested and imprisoned.

Public demonstrations

Finally, it may sound exciting and even virtuous to participate in the many public protests that take place daily throughout Latin America. But in doing so you run the risk of being arrested and subsequent deported. Even if you are not protesting but claim to be an “innocent bystander” you still run the risk of arrest.

Not the bar you want to frequent Matthew Ansley
Not the bar you want to frequent
by Matthew Ansley

So what do you do if you end up on the wrong side of the law in another country?

The first thing you should do is notify the U.S. embassy or consulate.

While the U.S. Department of State, whose job is to ensure fair and humane treatment for U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas, cannot get you out of jail or give legal assistance, they can provide a list of local attorneys who speak English. They will make sure you receive proper medical care and inform you about the local criminal justice process.

They can also contact your friends, family or employer to apprise them of the situation with your written permission. It is a call they would rather not receive. My best advice is to avoid it at all costs.

Do you have your own version of “Midnight Express?” (I certainly hope not!) Legal experiences that bear repeating/avoiding? Please share your stories.

by: Eileen Brill Wagner