It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes people traveling abroad can inadvertently get themselves into sticky legal situations and quickly find themselves facing the very unpleasant prospect of prison time or an even harsher fate. This is one of the major reasons why TripInsurance.com includes the services of On Call International with every travel insurance plan we sell. On Call is a leading provider of emergency legal, medical, and other services for travelers. If you need expert legal assistance, you can get it just by making one call to On Call.
Recently, we talked with Dick Atkins, a Philadelphia-based lawyer, who, as part of his work, consults with On Call International, helping people who are in legal trouble abroad get out of it. In the 30 years Dick’s been at it, he’s been quite successful, winning the freedom of more than 1000 Americans arrested abroad and earning the nickname “the Houdini of fast escapes from international prisons” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
As part of our conversation, we asked Dick for some tips to help travelers minimize their chances of getting into legal hassles when traveling abroad. Here’s a summary of what he said:
- First, take out travel insurance. This gives travelers 24/7 access to a lawyer who specializes in solving the kinds of legal problems travelers often face. And, even if you’re not in trouble yet but think there might be a problem, call for legal assistance. It’s better to act before you’re formally charged for a local crime.
- Check the U.S. State Department’s website. This is particularly important if you are planning to go to Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, or most places other than Western Europe. Here you can see if there are any warnings that might alert you to special issues or problems occurring in the country you plan to visit. Most of these issues are posted.
- Think about what you photograph. In many countries, it’s illegal to take pictures of military installations or other kinds of government facilities. So, use discretion when selecting your photo ops.
- Be careful about buying anything that might be considered an antiquity. This is very important to remember if you are traveling in Greece, other Mediterranean countries, Southeast Asia, or Latin America. Attempting to leave many of these countries with an antiquity can result in serious jail time, and officials are serious about enforcement no matter how innocent a traveler is or appears. To underscore this point, Dick told the story of a American woman he once knew who bought a piece of art, a face mask, in Turkey for about $6.50 that turned out—much to her surprise—to be about 1000 years old. She was jailed and went through quite an ordeal before she could return to the U.S.
- Research unusual local laws. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it’s illegal to possess any kind of alcoholic beverage, to engage in any religious practice other than Islam, or to drive a car if you’re a woman. And, in many countries, it’s illegal to show any disrespect for a monarch or members of the royal family. It’s simple to learn more about the local laws. Just do a Google search.
- Don’t take firearms or ammunition abroad. One of Dick’s clients was arrested in Mexico when a security officer found a single bullet left over from a past hunting trip in the client’s suitcase. There was no gun or any other bullets. But the one bullet was enough to land the man in jail.
- Don’t carry recreational drugs. For drug possession, many countries will sentence people to death. Period. And, in many places, the laws don’t differentiate between drugs such as marijuana and the so-called “harder” drugs such as heroin. If you have any kind of drugs in your possession in many places, you will very likely face serious consequences. This, by the way, is one of the most common legal problems Americans get into when traveling outside the country. Each year, about 30-to-40% of Americans arrested abroad are arrested for drugs.
- Don’t carry anything that can be defined as pornography. Again, many countries have stiff laws against possession of this kind of material, even so-called “soft core” magazines such as Playboy.
If this discussion has triggered any questions and you would like to know more about these or related subjects, you are welcome to contact Dick at Dickatkins@aol.com.
Or, if you would just like to post a comment or a tip of your own on this site, feel free to do so. We’re always happy to hear what you have to say!