Frequently Asked Questions About International Crime

Q: Will the U.S. government help me if I am arrested in a foreign country?

A: Under international law, a foreign government that arrests a U.S. national must inform the U.S. embassy or consulate of the arrest once the U.S. national requests that they do so. Additionally, the United States has treaties with some nations that require the country to notify the U.S. embassy and/or consulate of the arrest or detention of a U.S. citizen whether a request is made or not. U.S. embassies and consulates can provide only limited assistance to U.S. citizens arrested in a foreign country. A consular officer will visit the arrested person in jail, if necessary, and provide him or her with a list of English-speaking lawyers. The officer will also try to ensure that the U.S. citizen is not mistreated, or is not treated any worse than any other prisoner in the local jail. If so requested, the officer will contact any friends or family members and notify them of the arrest.

Q: If an American is convicted of a crime in a foreign country, can he or she serve the sentence in an American prison?

A: The U.S. has entered into prisoner transfer treaties with many nations that allow a person convicted of a crime to be transferred to his or her home country to serve the prison sentence. A prisoner who wants to be transferred should notify the U.S. embassy or consulate of his or her desire. The application then must be approved by the foreign country and the U.S. Department of Justice before the transfer can take place. A prisoner who is transferred to the U.S. will have his or her sentence reevaluated, and may be resentenced according to U.S. law.

Q: While I was visiting overseas, I made some remarks critical of the foreign government. I left the country, and learned I have been charged with a crime for defaming the national government. Can I be extradited to that country?

A: No. U.S extradition treaties generally provide that a person can be extradited to a foreign country only for something that is a crime both in the U.S. and the foreign country.

Q: My parents brought me to the U.S. when I was a child, and I have not finished the naturalization process. If I am convicted of a crime, can I be deported?

A: Noncitizens convicted in the U.S. of crimes the immigration law defines as "aggravated felonies" may be subject to deportation proceedings, even if their immigration status is that of a permanent resident, or even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. A person deported for committing a crime is permanently barred from returning to the U.S. The term "aggravated felony" includes violent crimes such as homicide or rape. It also includes many drug-related offenses, as well as some theft offenses (such as shoplifting).

Q: I sent a package to a friend in a foreign country that contained things that are illegal in that country. Can I be prosecuted?

A: The answer depends on what it was that you sent. If you sent something that is illegal only in the foreign country - for example, books or magazines banned in that country - you are not subject to prosecution unless you go to that country. If the package contained something that is illegal in both countries - illegal drugs or weapons - you could be prosecuted in the U.S. or extradited to the foreign country to face punishment under its laws.

Q: If I am the victim of a crime committed in a foreign country, can the person who committed the crime be tried in U.S. courts?

A: Traditionally, the U.S. has resisted the idea that foreign nationals could be tried in U.S. courts for a crime committed abroad against a U.S. national (called "passive nationality jurisdiction"). In recent years, some U.S. criminal laws, especially those that relate to terrorism or terrorist acts, have been changed to allow U.S. authorities to prosecute some violent crimes against U.S. citizens wherever the crime was committed.

Q: My sister is serving with the U.S. Army overseas. She was arrested for a crime committed when she was not on the Army base. Will she be tried by the foreign court or by a U.S. court martial?

A: The legal authority to prosecute a U.S. service member in an overseas court depends upon the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and the host country. While all SOFAs are different, they typically provide that a U.S. service member who commits a crime off-base may be tried in the courts of the host country, unless the crime was committed against another American service member, or unless the crime was committed during the course of the service member's official duties. If the service member is not tried in the host country's court, he or she may be tried by a U.S. court martial.

Q: Are foreign diplomats immune from prosecution for crimes they commit in the U.S.?

A: Diplomats are not subject to prosecution for crimes they commit in the country in which they are stationed. This is the general rule followed by most countries in the world, not just the U.S. The country in which the crime is committed is usually limited to ordering the offending diplomat to leave the country.

Q: What is the International Criminal Court? Is it the same thing as the International Court of Justice?

A: The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a separate court from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICC is set up to try those accused of offenses known as "crimes against humanity." Crimes against humanity include offenses such as war crimes and genocide. The U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The International Court of Justice, on the other hand, is an organ of the United Nations and hears disputes between nations, such as border disputes. Individuals may not bring cases before the ICJ.

For more information about international criminal law, or to speak with an attorney about the details of an international crime case, email Frank A. Rubino, Esq., or call his offices in Houston and Miami toll free at 866-718-3994.