After spending four years in an Italian prison for murdering her roommate, American college student Amanda Knox was set free last week when an Italian court threw out her 2009 conviction.
The Knox case drew international attention, but she was just one of an estimated 3,000 Americans arrested abroad each year.
Often, people spend time in jail for breaking laws they didn't even know existed. Laws in foreign countries can differ significantly from the laws we have here in the United States. For instance, did you know it's illegal to ride a motorcycle shirtless in Thailand? Or that you can't kiss at a French train station?
Those are examples of silly laws that are unlikely to land you in jail if you break them. But if you are arrested for a more serious crime abroad, there are some things you need to know.
The first thing to do is to ask to speak to a consular officer at the American embassy where you're traveling. Under international agreements, it is your right to speak to receive assistance from your government. A consular official can help you in several ways:
- Contacting your family
- Forwarding money from your family to help with your defense
- Ensuring you are physically well and being held under appropriate living conditions
- Supplying a list of local attorneys
"Americans arrested abroad should also contact and hire a U.S. criminal defense attorney immediately to conduct a proper and robust investigation on their behalf and to be involved with their local counsel abroad," says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV .
In many cases, Americans are arrested abroad for violating a country's drug laws. The U.S. State Department says about one-third of those arrested in foreign countries each year fall into this category, and they end up in jail because they assumed they couldn't get arrested for drug possession. You should know that you can you be arrested and jailed for drug-related offenses abroad, and the penalties are often harsher than they are here in the U.S.
"Getting out of jail before your trial is more complicated in most countries than it is here at home" says Olathe, Kansas criminal defense attorney David Langston of Langston Law, Chartered. "The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world that have a professional system of bail bondsmen. Some countries allow defendants to post a cash bond directly with the court, but in many countries you are required to stay in jail until your trial".
There's one other thing every American traveler should know when traveling abroad: if you're arrested, you won't necessarily be presumed innocent. In many countries -- Mexico, England, and France, for example -- defendants are presumed guilty until proven innocent.