General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
BY MICHAEL MACY
While travelers in legal trouble make the headlines back home and even become the topics of books and movies, millions of people wander the globe and their only contact with a foreign legal system is when they show their passport to cross a border. Lost luggage is a lot more likely to be problem than how to make bail in a currency you have not quite figured out. But, like in probate, a little planning can save you a lot of trouble later. There are just a few words of advice to remember.
In the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Just remember, wherever you go, there you are.” You are subject to the law of the country you are visiting. Now this may sound elementary, but it is surprising how many Americans expect that their American passport means that they can only be held responsible for their actions under American law. They call the American Embassy and are shocked when they are told that some countries have a presumption of guilt. But you don’t have to memorize the laws of every country you are going to visit. Most tourist legal problems occur where most tourists travel, and those countries have well-established procedures for dealing with visitors’ problems. Most of these problems are routine. If your purse is stolen while watching the changing of the guard, the British bobbies will help you file a report that you will need for an insurance claim.
A little bit of preparation goes a long way. Make sure your health insurance covers you overseas. If you are traveling outside of the developed world, carry medical evacuation insurance and know how to contact your provider. Is your drivers’ license valid for every country you are going to visit? Does your household insurance cover losses away from home? What kinds of losses does it cover? What are the limits? Make copies of your credit cards and travelers check numbers and keep them in a safe place. Retain one credit card in a separate, safe place in case your wallet and other credit cards are stolen. This may be your only access to cash or credit. These are all common sense tips, but are often neglected by even the most seasoned of travelers. If you go through a checklist of travelers’ tips, you will be prepared for most legal problems that could arise.
There are always the exceptional circumstances. If you want to go where no one has ever gone before—well, you will probably be disappointed, because somebody has already been there. This is good, because even if you are going off the beaten path, you can learn from those who have headed off in the same direction.
The State Department issues regular travel advisories that provide warnings about specific problems. The Department also prepares consular information sheets about almost every country in the world, which will provide you with information about visas, driving tips, and safety and crime-related precautions. Before you head off for that raft trip on the Zambezi, it is a good idea to read the information sheets for the countries you will be paddling through.
American embassies abroad may be a great help, but their services are limited. If you lose your passport, the Embassy can issue you a new one. It will help if you have a copy of the first page. If you are arrested, contact the embassy immediately. International law provides you with a right to meet with a representative of your country. But, again, the law of the land prevails. The U.S. Embassy can only work to ensure that American citizens receive the same treatment as the citizens of the country of the arrest—which still can be pretty rough. In some places, even equivalent treatment does not cost the same. Recently it was reported that four convicted robbers who had been under a sentence of death paid a bribe of around $3,000 to escape from prison, while it cost an American citizen who had been charged with fraud and not even convicted $5,000 to escape.
Embassies maintain lists of local lawyers who have handled cases for Americans. The embassy can provide you with nutritional supplements if the prison food is dangerous to your health, but if you find yourself in that situation, vitamins will not solve all your problems. American embassy staff can be of help in a number of other, usually dire, circumstances. They can assist in the repatriation of remains and effects of American citizens who die abroad or provide emergency loans to indigent Americans. An embassy is not a source of restaurant reviews or theater tickets, but American employees are often a tremendous source of information about the country where they are serving.
Most serious legal situations are avoidable if you remember another simple phrase: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” If you are in Old Delhi and somebody offers you the buy of a lifetime on uncut emeralds, chances are they are pieces of an old Limca bottle, India’s answer to Sprite. By all means shop, but don’t let fantasies of the deal of a lifetime lead to a life sentence. An astounding number of shrewd businesspeople and lawyers fall for scams overseas. People who never give an inch in a domestic deal are willing to pay good money for worthless bags of paper, broken bottles, and rocks because they think they are going to make a killing on a currency exchange, jewels, or gold.
Beware of the friendly native who just wants to help you with a little black market currency exchange, or who promises to find you the perfect pre-Columbian artifact or ivory carving. It is illegal to export or bring into the United States many of these kinds of items. Your biggest worry is that your newfound friend may turn you in to the local authorities, who will pay him a reward and give him his merchandise back so he can sell it to the next gullible tourist. There is a long list of scams that are pulled on tourists, from phony stock in oil companies to art to gold mines. Steer clear of get-rich-quick schemes and enjoy your vacation. Travel smart, travel safe. There is a big world out there and it is a joy to discover.
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