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]

Potential new law renders travel writers liable for recommending “risky” locations

travel writersProposed state legislation in Hawaii could potentially render guidebook authors personally liable for damage claims if a reader is injured while performing an activity suggested in the guidebook.

The Wall Street Journal writes that “a proposed state law that would hold Hawaii guidebook writers personally liable for deaths or accidents at spots they recommend.” The proposed law has been “watered down to call only for a task force, before dying in a committee. But the bill’s backers pledge to refile it if guidebooks don’t shape up,” the article reports.

The article also pointed to the case of Winter v. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, in which a couple sued a guidebook after becoming critically ill while picking mushrooms. The decision found that a publisher “does not have a duty to act as a guarantor for the contents of all books that it publishes.”

It is likely that First Amendment rights will protect writers and make it exceptionally difficult for any state to pass legislation declaring liability for guidebook suggestions. However, the issue brings up a valid point – we as writers need to realize that our words have actions, and that risks must be discussed in equal parts with the reward.

So often, in describing the positives of a location, we forget the negatives – you need to be in great shape to reach the summit of X mountain, or that pickpockets frequent up-and-coming areas we’re covering as a “best new destination.” Be sure to share the “real” travel experience and remember that your audience is often much less well-traveled than you. Don’t dumb down your content, just be sure to share the risks (and rewards) with equal treatment.

We’d love to hear your opinions – do you think this law has a chance of passing anywhere? Do you think writers should be held responsible for their suggestions?

[Flickr via steakpinball]

Court fines hotel owners for refusing gay couple a room

gay, GayA court in England has fined hotel owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull for refusing a gay couple a double room, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy tried to get a room at the Chymorvah Hotel, near Penzance , in 2008, but were turned away. The judge ruled that this was discrimination and awarded the couple £1800 ($2,863) each in damages.

The Bulls are Christian and say they object to giving any unmarried couple a room. The judge ruled that since Hall and Preddy are civil partners they have the same rights as married couples. The BBC has filmed a statement by Hall and Preddy.

[Image courtesy Ludovic Bertron]

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Smoking ban takes effect in Spain today

Spain, spain, smoking, smoking laws, smoking banStarting today in Spain, it is illegal to smoke in any enclosed space where the public gathers. This includes bars, cafes, and restaurants. It will also be illegal to smoke in school playgrounds and near hospitals. Smoking will even be banned from TV shows.

Spain joins a host of countries that have recently toughened up anti-smoking laws, including Finland, Egypt, and Syria. Countries with national health care systems are looking for ways to reduce costs, and getting people to give up an unhealthy habit is one way to do that. In the U.S., health insurance companies have been among the biggest proponents of anti-smoking legislation.

Living in Spain, it’s seems inconceivable to me to spend a night out on a juerga (pub crawl) and not come home smelling like an ashtray. Then again, I had a hard time believing British pubs would enforce the UK smoking ban a few years back, and they did.

Spanish bar and cafe owners aren’t happy, though. With the economic crisis some have already gone under, and others fear that customers will keep away. A Spanish law in 2006 seemed to have solved the problem by allowing smaller places to choose whether to be smoking or nonsmoking, while larger venues had to provide no smoking areas. Most smaller places chose to allow smoking, but a few did well by becoming bastions of clean air. Now everyone has to ban smoking, and those larger places that built special nonsmoking sections ended up wasting their money.

Traveler to be caned for overstaying visa in Singapore

Tourist visas and their respective extensions are a matter of hot discussion among travelers in Southeast Asia. Many countries only issues visas for 30, 60 or 90 days, but the long term traveler often has reason to stay beyond. As a result, many simply cross the border into another country, stay for a bit and turn right around, earning another tourist visa on the inbound journey. Some even riskier folks choose to stay past their visa date and simply face any punishment that the state issues forth. Usually, that penalty is minor.

That is unless you’re Kamari Charlton, a US citizen who recently overstayed his visa in Singapore and who has now been sentenced to three lashings with a cane. Mr. Charlton, who stayed nearly six months longer than his visa allowed, was in the small Asian city state while his wife was on a medical visa. On departure he was detained pending investigation of assorted fiscal adventures — when it was then revealed that his visa was past due.

The plot further thickens with Mr. Charlton’s claim that he was discriminated against in the ruling — a similar case with an Asian relative was dismissed with a fine.

Needless to say, this serves as a pretty extreme reminder to mind your visa’s due date when entering a country. The consequences could be stronger than you think.

[flickr image via Peti_Morgan]