Know Before You Travel!

I admit I’m excited that I’m going on vacation next week and spending three weeks in the Philippines. Of course, I’ll be thinking about you guys while I’m sitting under a coconut tree and watching the waves roll in.

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Having an impending vacation makes it very difficult to think of suitable legal blog topics, but since I’ve got traveling on the brain, let’s look at some legal things about travel.

Americans have a lot of rights guaranteed by the Constitution and enforced by the legal system. We’re very lucky in that respect in comparison with many parts of the world. While it is true that you have a variety of rights because you are an American, it’s also important to remember that your rights don’t travel with you.

Approximately 2,000 U.S. citizens wind up in foreign jails every year for periods ranging from a few days to decades. We’re not counting political prisoners here, but simply people who have broken the law of the country they are visiting. It’s wonderful to travel to other countries, see new places, and experience other cultures and I highly recommend it as a learning experience. However, too many Americans run afoul of the law in other countries because they assume they have the same rights when they travel as they do at home and that they are immune from arrest simply because they are Americans. The fact is (can’t stress it enough) when you are in another country you are subject to the laws of that country. Just as is true here, ignorance of the law is no excuse and being an American does not provide immunity from arrest. The last thing you want as part of your vacation experience is a visit to the local prison.

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The two big things that get people into trouble are drugs and firearms, and common sense should tell you to avoid these at all costs. For example, I read a news story last week from Sindangan, Philippines (the town my wife and I are headed to on vacation) about an American guy who was there on vacation. Apparently, he felt he needed a gun for “protection” while he was there, so he found a local who was happy to sell him one. Later, he was in a bar and started bragging to his newfound drinking buddies about his gun and lifted up the back of his shirt to show it off. Another bar patron saw this and called the police to let them know there was a foreigner in the bar with a gun. He was arrested, his .45 caliber pistol with the serial number filed off was confiscated, and he will likely spend the next six years in Bilibid Prison in Manila (pictured above) for illegal possesion of a firearm.

It’s important to do some research on the laws of the country you are going to visit. It’s also important to remember that even if you see the local people getting away with doing things that are technically illegal, you as a foreigner are much more visible.

Besides the two big ones, there are also a lot of other things that could get you into trouble if you’re not aware of the law. Americans highly prize freedom of speech and take it for granted that “I can say anything I want.” In many places, you can be jailed for being critical of the government, public figures, the country itself, or rude behavior in public. You can even be jailed for what you say on social media. A Filipino working in Singapore was recently jailed for two years for making negative comments about Singaporeans on his Facebook page. An American contractor in Saudi Arabia was jailed for negative comments about his employer on his Facebook page he posted while back in the U.S. on vacation. When he returned to Saudi Arabia to go back to work, he was arrested at the airport. A British woman who is Buddhist traveled to Thailand on a pilgrimage to visit the holy sites there. She was detained at the airport on arrival and not allowed into the country because she had a large tattoo of Buddha on her arm, which is a violation of the religious defamation law of Thailand. So please do your research first and practice good behavior along the way.

If you do run into trouble overseas, it’s also important to know what the embassy or consulate can and can’t do for you. The following information is from the State Department web page:

Avoid getting arrested overseas by:

  • Following the laws and regulations of the country you are visiting or living in.
  • Learning about laws there which might be different from the laws in the United States. We provide some information for each country on our Country Specific pages.  For further information on laws within the foreign country before you go, contact that country’s nearest embassy or consulate within the United States.

If you are arrested overseas or know a U.S. citizen who is:

  • Ask the prison authorities to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate
  • You may also wish to reach out to the closest U.S. embassy or consulate to let us know of arrest.  Contact information for U.S. Embassies and Consulates overseas can be found here or by going to our individual Country Specific Information pages.

 We can help:

  • Provide a list of local attorneys who speak English
  • Contact family, friends, or employers of the detained U.S. citizen with their written permission
  • Visit the detained U.S. citizen regularly and provide reading materials and vitamin supplements, where appropriate
  • Help ensure that prison officials are providing appropriate medical care for you
  • Provide a general overview of the local criminal justice process
  • Inform the detainee of local and U.S.-based resources to assist victims of crime that may be available to them
  • If they would like, ensuring that prison officials are permitting visits with  a member of the clergy of the religion of your choice
  • Establish an OCS Trust so friends and family can transfer funds to imprisoned U.S. citizens, when permissible under prison regulations

We cannot:

  • Get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas
  • State to a court that anyone is guilty or innocent
  • Provide legal advice or represent U.S. citizens in court overseas
  • Serve as official interpreters or translators
  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees for U.S. citizens overseas

So with that in mind, I’m packing up and getting ready to go. If you need me, I’ll be somewhere around here:

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