Getting Arrested Abroad Is No Laughing Matter
By Tonya Page, California Bail Bondsman
It's summer at last. Travel! Vacations! A time to leave everyday worries behind and have some fun!
When most people plan vacations, they book a stay in a nice hotel or a romantic bed and breakfast – not a jail cell.
Often, however, we get calls from tourists who had a little too much fun in the California sun or had a heated argument with a spouse and ran afoul of the law. As a bondsman, we can easily help even people from other states with bail.
These are often kind of incidents that might result in a night in jail, fine, or single court appearance - at least in the United States.
Thousands of Americans Arrested Abroad Each Year
Other countries' laws and customs can be quite different. The estimated 3,000 Americans arrested abroad each year discover that a minor offense in the US can be a major transgression in another country.
For instance, in 2008, a British couple was arrested in Dubai for having, well, an intimate evening on a public beach. That was in poor taste, to be sure, but Dubai authorities convicted them of public indecency and "having an illegal physical encounter outside marriage." The couple was sentenced to 3 months in jail.
It's pretty easy to get put in jail in another country. Getting out can be much more difficult. For instance, only the United States and the Philippines have a system of professional bail bondsmen. Some countries do allow defendants to post a cash bond directly with the court; others keep defendants in jail until trial.
CNN recently did a piece on the "World's Strangest Laws," finding that:
"In France, it's illegal to name a pig Napoleon. […] And in England, you may urinate anywhere in public, including inside a policeman's helmet, providing that you're also pregnant."
Criminal Justice Systems Vary Widely Around the World
That's a silly story, but getting arrested overseas is no laughing matter.
American citizens who are used to the protections provided by the US Constitution are often shocked to find out that "probable cause" and "unreasonable search and seizure" and even bans on "cruel and unusual punishment" aren't concepts that are accepted worldwide.
In Japan, police can search citizens (and non-citizens) at will and detain people without bail for as long as 28 days! There's also no right to trial by jury.
A "youthful indiscretion" in one country can be serious business in another.
Consider the case of Michael Fay, an 18-year-old American who was convicted of vandalism in Singapore and sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes with a rattan cane. The six strokes were reduced to four as a "gesture to President Clinton."
Drug Offenses Often Carry Harsh Punishments
A few slaps with a cane – even if it draws blood – sounds like a picnic compared to the punishments for drug trafficking and possession in other parts of the world. Unfortunately though, some Americans don't take the issue seriously.
According to the US Dept of State Bureau of Consular Affairs: during 1994, 2,500 Americans were arrested in 95 foreign countries.
Of these, 880 ended up in jails abroad because they assumed they couldn't get arrested for drug possession.
From Asia to Africa, Europe to South America, Americans are finding out the hard way that drug possession or trafficking equals jail in foreign countries.
Offenders are often held without bail (or any prospect of release) and in solitary confinement. Sentences can range from "merely" harsh to horrible: from a 10-year minimum sentence in Venezuela to life imprisonment in Greece. In some countries, you're lucky to get a jail sentence: Iran, Indonesia, and Thailand are among the countries that impose death sentences for drug offenses.
Obey Local Laws When Traveling!
Here in the United States, ignorance of the law may be a mitigating factor, but it's no excuse. It's the same way in other countries. Before you travel abroad, learn about the local laws and customs, because you'll have to follow them.
Your American passport isn't a "get out of jail free" card. The only thing it guarantees you is a call to the American consulate or embassy in the country where you've been arrested. Many travelers are shocked to find out that consular officials aren't able to provide much help:
A U.S. consular officer cannot demand your release, represent you at trial, or pay legal fees with U.S. government funds. Much of what the officer can do is controlled by the country you are arrested in. He or she can provide a list of attorneys, notify family, and monitor your health and welfare as permitted. Depending on what country you're in, the ongoing support provided includes arranging dietary supplements and examinations by an independent physician.
Every day, we deal with good people who made a mistake or bad decision that gets them into trouble. Usually, we're able to help them get out of jail and back home with their families. But there's no comparable system in many other countries and little protection for defendants.
Keep this in mind as you plan your summer vacation. Be knowledgeable, respectful, and aware - and have a safe and happy trip!
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- Eduardo in Los Angeles