When a Routine Business Trip Turns into a Nightmare:
What to Do If You Are Arrested in a Foreign Country
The last thing on your mind when traveling for business is the prospect of being arrested. Nonetheless, the U.S. government reports that more 2,500 American citizens find themselves detained by foreign law enforcement every year. While a relatively large percentage involve drug-related offenses, in some countries, it doesn’t take much for an American to inadvertently violate local laws resulting in detention. And while certain foreign laws and cultural norms may appear archaic, unfair, or overly punitive, as a guest in a foreign land, business travelers and tourists alike must understand them and make every effort to avoid attracting the attention of government authorities. Here’s some guidance to help you avoid an arrest overseas, and what to do if you find yourself staring at the walls of a foreign prison cell.
Learn the local laws, regulations, and cultural practices.
As soon as you book your plane ticket, learn about your intended destination and its local laws. The U.S. State Department publishes information on almost every foreign country, including local laws and special circumstances worthy of a business traveler’s attention. For example, many countries require foreigners to carry their passport at all times. Further, some cultures criminalize the public practice of certain religions and signs of affection between same-sex couples.
Register with the U.S. government.
By registering with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), you’ll receive security-related updates regarding your destination. Registering also provides U.S. government officials with your contact information so they can reach you in the event of an emergency.
Set up alerts for countries on your itinerary.
To improve your understanding of the living conditions as well as the current economic and political environment, create search engine and social media alerts for the countries you intend to visit. By doing so, you might identify an uptick in protests critical of the U.S. government or the high-profile arrest of an American citizen. With time, you’ll develop a better understanding of the risks of entering a given country and the locations to avoid.
If arrested, notify the embassy or consulate.
While State Department employees cannot require your release, they can help ensure your humane treatment while detained. They can also serve as a conduit for information between you and your family members and employer. To avoid confusion and streamline the communication process, designate one person in the United States as the primary point of contact for the government employees assisting you.
Secure legal and language assistance.
While a U.S. government official can refer a local attorney with command of the English language to represent you, they cannot pay their fees. They cannot act as your official interpreter either. So if English is not the primary language spoken in the country, make sure to request an interpreter. State Department officials can help your designated point of contact in the United States send money for your legal and interpretation expenses.
Forget the protections afforded prisoners under U.S. law.
When arrested in the United States, individuals have certain rights such as the right to legal counsel. Those protections do not follow a U.S. citizen when they travel overseas. To avoid making a critical error based on a lack of understanding of local laws and protections, follow your attorney’s guidance to the letter. If they tell you to remain silent, do so. When not in the presence of your attorney, do not attempt to plead your case with prison guards or police officers; an attempt to do so may weaken your case or provide law enforcement officials with additional information to aid in your criminal prosecution or an upgrade of your charges.
If supported by an executive protection firm while traveling, make sure they’re made aware of your incarceration. While they cannot secure your release, they will likely maintain good relations with local law enforcement and may possess the ability to gather additional information to help your attorney formulate a stronger case.