Learning From Amanda Knox
Familiarizing yourself with the legal systems abroad can mean the difference between bringing home souvenirs and spending time behind bars
by Danielle Cadet
When preparing to study in Barcelona the summer before her senior year of college, Candace Wells never expected to have any run-ins with the law. But when a holiday in Venice took a wrong turn, her dreams of buying Italian shoes and sipping wine fresh from the vineyard became a nightmare with the possibility of jail time.
In 2008, the 20-year-old Wells and a friend made a late decision to join two classmates on the weekend trip. They were nervous about adding extra guests to a hotel room booked for two, but assumed it wasn’t a problem when the concierge said nothing. The next morning, the girls were confronted by another hotel employee who told them there were too many people in the room and threatened to phone the authorities.
“It was terrible,” says Wells, now 23. “We didn’t know what to do and we figured we were already in trouble.”
Although Wells’ situation was relatively minor, infractions with the law while studying abroad can run the gamut. In particular, one student’s awful experience has not only garnered global attention, but has also made legal risk-management a must.
In 2009, Amanda Knox, a Seattle-native studying in Italy, was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing her roommate. Since the murder, Knox has spent the last four years in jail awaiting appeals as her case has gone back and forth over issues of alleged contaminated evidence and a disputed confession, and the case has evolved into what one U.S. senator has dubbed a trial possibly tainted by anti-Americanism.
“I think all the press that Amanda Knox has gotten has really raised the profile,” says Bill Frederick, founder and director of Lodestone Safety International, an organization that helps prepare students and faculty for health, safety and security crises abroad. “For students, it’s about getting the point across that things do happen, and they’re not in Kansas anymore.”
If students are traveling overseas to learn about a new culture, they must take one important thing into account: “Part of the culture can be the law,” says Dick Atkins, an attorney who specializes in releasing American citizens from international prisons.
Atkins cites one of his cases as an example: A traveler who faced 15 years in a Thai prison for tearing baht, the country’s currency. “In Thailand, it’s illegal to deface an image of the king,” Atkins says. But Atkins contacted a doctor of forensic psychology who convinced the authorities that the student was mentally unstable, and set the traveler free.
With a career spanning more than 30 years, Atkins has worked with a variety of well-known cases, written a guide to prisoner transfer treaties for the United Nations and been given the nickname “the Houdini of fast escapes” by National Geographic. In his experience, he’s found that students accidentally commit crimes when they’ve consumed too much alcohol or fall victim to wrongdoing through scams. In such a situation, he suggests victims quickly work with their study abroad program or local police to quickly address the issue.
But this strategy isn’t workable everywhere, Frederick says. “In some countries you absolutely call the police,” he says. “In others, absolutely not.”
He believes study abroad programs should actively assess whether or not local authorities will be likely to scam students during an emergency. “It is important that they understand the culture and know whether bribery is something to be considered as a way to prevent harm to students,” he says.
“In some places, authorities might be hesitant to arrest an American.” But in other locations, Frederick says: “Being an American might make them an attractive target.”
Although many students believe they have the protection of their program, parents and even the United States’ embassies, Frederick says they should have a healthy paranoia and must acknowledge the lack of power those entities have when dealing with global legal systems.
“There is a lot of variation across programs in regards to how much support they will offer,” he says. “Hopefully, the program would call the embassy for you. But then the embassy’s support is going to be very limited. They will visit you in jail, try to help you locate an English-speaking lawyer, they might loan you some money, but they really are not going to get you out.”
John Echard, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, agrees. “We’re not lawyers,” he says. “We can only advise."
Echard says any American citizen detained overseas has the right to request that the U.S. embassy or consulate be contacted. However, he says a representative only can visit the individual, provide a list of possible attorneys and give guidance on the particular country’s legal system.
The State Department does, however, provide a variety of information on international legislative systems on their website, including information on entry and exit requirements and travel alerts. The department also sends messages to U.S. citizens via Facebook and Twitter, and recently released a mobile app available on the iPhone.
Echard says the best thing students can do is register for the Smart Travel Enrollment Program, which enables the State Department to stay connected with them abroad and contact family at home in case of an emergency. Students can provide their passport information, travel details, emergency numbers and other relevant information online. But to cover all bases, it is recommended students also leave a copy of their passport and itinerary at home with parents.
Megan Miller found this advice particularly important when she studied in Rome during her spring semester in 2007. “Initially I thought I was just doing it for my mom’s peace of mind,” she says. “But as soon as we found ourselves in a compromising situation, it was a great source of reassurance to know that if things really did go awry, people would know where we were."
Miller noticed that Americans were sometimes subject to more scrutiny from law enforcement. “As an American, no matter how hard you try to blend in, you don’t,” she says.
Miller added it’s important not to get cocky and assume you will be given the same legal protections afforded in the States.
“As a foreigner, regardless of the rights you have in the U.S., you really have no rights,” she says If you have offended the country that makes those laws, they can just as easily eliminate those same laws that you’re counting on to defend your case at the drop of a hat.”
As with any element of living and traveling overseas, preparation is key—and essential to avoiding handcuffs over homecoming.
“The great majority of students travel safely,” Atkins says. “But students have to use good judgment and never lose their common sense.”