Know Your Spring Break Legal Rights

Spring Breakers, did you know that anyone boarding a plane is covered by a “passenger bill of rights?” Or that in Mexico you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent?

Lawyers.com’s editor in chief, Larry Bodine, has some legal insights that Spring Breakers should digest well before their first Jello shot – particularly the 120,000 students heading to Mexico this year.

What can I do right this instant to be safer on Spring Break?
Sign up for the U.S. government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s free, and in the feds’ own words, “It allows the State Department to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements.”

What’s another thing?
Look up the U.S. consulate or consular agency closest to where you’re staying. At travel.state.gov, check under Country Specific Information for a list of agencies in your destination. Print copies for you and your travel mates and enter the information in your cellphone.

Is there an app for that?
Yes! There’s a Smart Traveler Program app for iPhone and Android.

American laws apply to me everywhere, right?
Wrong. Bodine says many college students think American citizenship grants them immunity from laws in other countries. This isn’t true. If you’re in Mexico or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic or anywhere, you are subject to that country’s laws and punishments. “There are a lot of semi-innocent things we do the U.S. that are crimes in Mexico,” Bodine says. “Walking on the street with an open alcohol container is a crime. Getting off the bus without paying. Taking off your clothes on the beach.”

In another country you can’t count on something like Panama City’s Spring Break Court to minimize the repercussions. “The laws in Mexico are very different,” Bodine says. “If you’re charged with a crime, you are presumed to be guilty, and you have to prove you are innocent. If you are arrested, you’ll be held for 48 hours before you get to make a statement. If they want to charge you, you can be held for a year without bail.”

Check the most recent edition of a reputable guidebook for laws.

How can I find out about open-container laws?
In Mexico, it’s illegal to walk on the street with an open container of alcohol. Costa Rica made it illegal last year. The law varies by country, so ask a bartender, a hotel manager or concierge or a security officer about your destination’s law once you arrive. Ask about public intoxication laws, too. And research them before you go.

Why do the police seem cool with the “anything goes” thing?
Police might let the good times roll – but they often crack down when there’s a car accident, a fight breaks out, someone gets belligerent with the cops or danger otherwise looms, Bodine says. You don’t want to be anywhere near these incidents. Find someone fun and rational to hang out with if you want to make sure to stay out of jail.

I’ve been arrested. Whom should I call?
Bodine says your first call – and only call, if just one is allowed – should be to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the area where you’re staying. Consular officials can provide information on the local legal system and help you find a local attorney, but they can’t get you out of jail.

What will happen if I get caught smoking pot in Mexico?
The U.S. State Department’s website says: “The importation, purchase, possession or use of drugs can incur severe penalties, including imprisonment without bail for up to a year before a case is tried, and imprisonment of several years following a conviction.” Don’t even risk having some in your pocket.

I’m 18 and can drink legally in Mexico. Can I also bring home alcohol?
No. Once you land in the U.S., it’s illegal for you to have it. Chances are it will be confiscated when you go through Customs after you land.

What should I do if I am the victim of a crime?
“Notify the authorities,” Bodine says, “but don’t let the hotel or tour company or restaurant make the report. You should also call the U.S. embassy.”

What rights do I have at the airport?
If you’re bumped from a flight because it is oversold or canceled, the airline is required to give you a paper detailing your rights. The airline employees rarely offer it, but you can ask for one. Bodine says the law requires the airline to rebook you on a different flight, and if that flight isn’t scheduled to arrive within two hours of your original flight, the airline is supposed to pay you 400 percent of the one-way fare for that leg of the trip. But again, don’t expect the airline to be upfront about this. “Ordinarily, they’ll offer you as little as possible,” Bodine says. “They’ll put you up in a hotel and offer you a $300 travel voucher. If you don’t ask for [your full entitlement], they won’t give it to you.”

If your flight is canceled or delayed by weather, the airlines don’t owe passengers any compensation.

Going to Mexico? Read the U.S. State Department’s “Know Before You Go” page for Spring Breakers, and brush up one more time with this video:

[Editor's note: Got legal questions? This isn't legal advice. Try reaching out to the folks at Lawyers.com!]

[Photo credits: top, Mnadi via Flickr; bottom, Spengu via Flickr]