Author Charles Rosenberg has been a partner in several law firms including a large international firm and is currently a partner at a three-lawyer firm. Rosenberg’s love of the law and a good thriller can be seen in his new international legal thriller, Paris Ransom. We asked Rosenberg to shed some legal insight on differences in international law, and what to keep in mind when making a trek oversees.
A friend of mine was recently detained at Heathrow airport in England for carrying pepper spray. And, no, she wasn’t trying to board a plane with it. Instead, realizing that it was in her purse, she was in the process of disposing of it in a trash can specially marked for aerosols. Which is when she was nabbed by the airport police. It turns out that possessing pepper spray in England is illegal. In fact, it’s a felony. Really? Yes, really.
She was surprised (and I was surprised to hear about it) because pepper spray is lawful in most states in the U.S. and is often recommended for self-defense.
It all worked out in the end, though. After keeping her for over an hour security officials let her go because she persuaded them that she really didn’t know that pepper spray was illegal in England (which she didn’t). But don’t risk trying to take it into England, even if it’s packed away in your luggage. If it’s found, there’s a high chance you won’t be able to persuade anyone of your lack of knowledge ), and you’ll go directly to jail (without passing GO or collecting $200).
My friend’s experience made me wonder: What other unknown laws could I easily get caught in overseas.
Not surprisingly, it’s mostly about guns. Most of the guns you can buy in the U.S. are illegal in England. For example, if you can obtain a gun permit to own a pistol, it will only be for a so-called long-barreled sport pistol. How long? One that’s at least two feet long overall with a barrel that’s a minimum of a foot. Hard to conceal in your boot, eh?
There are a lot of other weapons import restrictions, too, many having to do with knives—no switchblades, gravity knives, knives that lock when unfolded (pocket knives with non-locking blades of 3 inches or less are okay) or fixed knives of any kind. My favorite blade restriction, though, is the ban on the importation of any samurai sword over 14 inches long. Perhaps more interesting, if you do get prosecuted for trying to bring a weapon into the country, you’ll be in for a lot of surprises (beside the fact that the lawyers and judges wear wigs and gowns). When you go to trial, the following things are likely to surprise you:
n Since you’re a foreigner, with a built-in incentive to flee, you are unlikely to get bail.
You won’t get to sit next to your lawyer (barrister) at counsel table during the trial. Instead, you’ll be sequestered in the “dock.” In modern English courts, that’s a small, locked, glassed-in room at the back or side of the courtroom. The glass panels have small gaps between them, so you can talk to your barrister or pass notes. Very inconvenient though.
n There are no challenges to jurors except in special cases: the juror knows your mother, for example, or was a witness to the crime. Jury selection takes about 30 minutes—twelve jurors picked at random from a pool of 20.
n As in the United States, you can decide not to testify in your own defense. But unlike in the U.S., where the judge and prosecutor can’t comment to the jury about your failure to testify, over there, they can. A prosecutor can say something like: “Mr. Smith decided to assert his right to silence and not testify, which he had every right to do. But had he testified, I would have liked to ask him this, this and this. The answers would have been very interesting, don’t you think?”
At the end of the trial, the judge not only instructs the jury on what the law is (as they do in the U.S.), but also sums up the facts for the jury (which judges certainly do not do here).
Unanimous verdicts aren’t needed. Ten to two will do to convict you. And sentences of 15 years are not unusual.
To avoid those kinds of procedural surprises, leave your favorite samurai sword at home.
Charles Rosenberg‘s new release, Paris Ransom, is available now on Kindle and in paperback . He notes that samurai swords are apparently okay in France.