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Good Question: What Are Americans Legal Rights Abroad?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The long legal saga of Amanda Knox in Italy, and the American hikers in Iran are a reminder of the challenges Americans have when they get caught up in the foreign legal system.

When Americans leave the U.S., what rights do they retain?

“I’ve been detained in several countries,” said Leif Petterson, a Minneapolis-based travel writer.

Petterson said he’s never been arrested, or prosecuted, but he has had his run-ins.

“The first time it’s heightened, the anxiety and the nervousness,” he said.

But as Knox learned in Italy, and the hikers learned in Iran, an American passport is not a get-out-of-jail free card in a foreign country.

“You’re subject to criminal laws and penalties of that country,” said Virgil Wiebe, a professor at University of St. Thomas Law School.

“Most countries are part of a treaty, if we arrest one of your nationals we’re going to let your consulate know,” Wiebe said.

According to the U.S. State Department, American consular officers made more than 9,500 prison visits, and helped more than 3,500 Americans who were arrested abroad. The consulate can’t represent you or fight for you, but they can help connect you with local attorneys.

“It says your country is looking out for you,” Wiebe said.

But that doesn’t mean that former President Clinton will fly out and broker a deal, like he did with Laura Ling in North Korea. It also doesn’t mean someone will pay $1 million to get you out, like the two male Americans arrested for crossing Iran’s border.

“A call to the embassy to the consulate isn’t going to fix it,” Wiebe said.

The reality is, the penalties are harsher in some countries for offenses that would be seen as minor in the U.S. The legal systems are different. In Europe, the judge is often like an investigator, quite different from the adversarial system in the United States.

“More often than not guilt is presumed rather than innocence,” Petterson said.
In Italy, juries are made up of 2 judges and 6 citizens, and a simple majority means you’re guilty. Even guilty verdicts in murder cases don’t need to be unanimous.

“I’ve been to Italy twice on trips to study the system, and I still struggle to understand how their procedural processes work,” Weibe said.

The best advice, Weibe said, is to register with the State Department when you travel abroad, and read the travel warnings to see if there are places you should avoid.

Sixty million Americans travel overseas every year, and only a tiny percentage are arrested.

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