What Happens if You Are Arrested in a Foreign Country

Brittney Griner, the American professional basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in Russia on February 17, 2022, just as the Russia-Ukraine war broke out.

The arrest came after an airport security dog prompted Russian authorities to search Griner’s possessions. When they did, they found four vape cartridges containing hash oil, a concentrated form of cannabis illegal in Russia.

What happened next was a more than five-month nightmare that no one would ever want. The basketball star was placed in a Russian jail while awaiting trial. According to the U.S. State Department, Russian prisons are “often harsh and life-threatening.” Making this nightmare even worse, the Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison when her case went to trial.

Americans are arrested overseas more often than we realize and for far less serious crimes. In fact, in some cases, they border on the ridiculous. A perfect example of a locale where Americans could find themselves unexpectedly jailed is Singapore.

In this city-state, known for being safe and exceptionally clean, you can be arrested for chewing gum. Not flushing a toilet or urinating in an elevator are crimes. Elevators are even equipped with urine detection devices. If urine odor is detected, elevator doors are locked until police arrive.  Add to the list jaywalking, and of course, drugs are all unlawful. Random drug testing is common in Singapore.

Griner was freed, after extreme intervention by the U.S. government involving a prisoner swap. But as we will see, that’s not typical.

What if you are arrested overseas?

Here is what typically happens when an American is arrested overseas:

Confusion. The first thing that sets in is considerable confusion and bewilderment. All too often, these arrests involve something not considered a crime in the United States.

Call. An American’s first call is often to the U.S. Embassy or consulate office.

FAM. In such situations, embassy or consular officers must follow the Foreign Affairs Manual, aka “FAM.” Every U.S. foreign post uses FAM. It’s considered the operational “bible” when an American is arrested overseas.

Visit. FAM requires that a consular officer visit the arrested American “as soon as possible” after hearing of the arrest.

Expectations. It is at this meeting that the officer is required to “give the arrestee a realistic and positive understanding of your (the Consulate’s) interest in their case [but to also] make clear to the prisoner that the judicial system and personal rights he or she enjoyed in the United States do not apply abroad.” Further, FAM guidelines advise the officer “to curb the prisoner’s expectations that consular assistance will result in extraordinary intervention or miraculous remedies.”

In other words, there is little the U.S. government can do to get you out of jail or reduce your sentence. And even if they can, their power is minimal.

Case in Point

In 1994, Michael Fay was sentenced to six strokes of the cane, referred to as caning, in Singapore. He had been charged with stealing road signs and vandalizing cars. Then-President Bill Clinton got involved, but all he could do was reduce the number of strokes from six to four.*

At this point, you might be thinking, “Being arrested overseas, whether on holiday or for business, could not happen to me.”

Well, you’re mistaken.

“For most Americans, especially those with no fame or connections, there’s no way to completely avoid the risk of being arrested overseas, sometimes on spurious charges,” says Simon Hankinson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Affairs.

“The more you can follow the letter of a foreign country’s law — particularly with regard to drugs and public behavior — the safer you’ll be.”

While we agree with Hankinson, his advice needs to go further.

For instance, TAL Global regularly works with travelers, including business executives and prominent people traveling abroad. We have found that many of our clients – as well as the organizations they work for – have no idea what “the letter of a foreign country’s law” is.

Further, they do not take precautions, they are not vetted on the customs requirements of the country they are visiting.  In addition, professional security arrangements once they get there often have not been made. In other words, they are at risk and in considerable danger just because they do not know what they are walking into.

A traveler’s risk analysis can help prevent and eliminate most risks when traveling abroad. There is no reason for anything such as we have discussed here to happen to you.

To Avoid Being Arrested and to Learn More

Attend our free Webinar on February 24, 2023, at 11 am (PST). Entitled, Checking in Before You Go: International Travel Security Tips, we will discuss the dangers and risks you may face traveling abroad and how to reduce the possibility of these occurring. Register here, it’s important: Webinar Registration – Zoom

*Caning is considered a very harsh punishment, usually only applied to men, with a maximum of twenty-four strokes at one time.


© TAL Global, 2019