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What are some apparently harmless things I shouldn't do in US as a tourist/traveler that can get me arrested by the police?

I am talking about something which most people outside US would consider absolutely harmless, but then it can get them in real trouble with law enforcement or the government.

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    Badmouthing the US government and/or any current or former presidents will not get you arrested. The US has some of the broadest freedom of speech rights in the developed world. You might make people mad, but outside particular circumstances you will not run into any legal trouble. High and low profile people call for the overthrow of the government somewhat frequently these days and even they don't get into trouble very often unless actual violence takes place. On the other hand, saying the wrong thing to a cop can get you killed, so be somewhat careful not to provoke the police.
    – cat40
    Apr 22, 2023 at 4:24
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    In some localities jay-walking can be an infraction or a misdemeanor. Apr 22, 2023 at 9:21
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    Give someone a ride to an abortion clinic. Apr 22, 2023 at 20:17
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    Buying alcohol while aged 20. Apr 22, 2023 at 20:18
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    I don't understand why this question has so many downvotes and is closed. As already indicated, there are a great many things that are normal in other countries that will get someone in serious trouble in the US. Apr 23, 2023 at 16:00

5 Answers 5

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You should check the Travel and Safety Advice that most countries offer for their citizens.

They will often contain information to insure that their citizens are aware that certain thing are done differently in other countries.

Here are a few for the United States:

USA / United States: Travel and Safety Advice - (German) Federal Foreign Office

Rechtliche Besonderheiten
Strafverfolgungsmaßnahmen und Strafrahmen der US-amerikanischen Rechtsordnungen sind zum Teil erheblich härter als in Deutschland.

Legal specifics
Criminal prosecution measures and penal frameworks in the US legal systems are sometimes considerably harsher than in Germany.

Alkoholgenuss
Nicht nur der Genuss von Alkohol in der Öffentlichkeit, sondern auch das sichtbare Tragen von Alkohol im öffentlichen Raum kann örtlich unter Strafe stehen.
Personen unter 21 Jahren darf Alkohol nicht zugänglich gemacht werden. Beim Einkauf von Alkohol wird fast immer ein Altersnachweis (Ausweis) verlangt.

  • Genießen Sie keinen Alkohol außerhalb Ihrer Unterkunft oder des Restaurants.
  • Führen Sie alkoholische Getränke nicht sichtbar im öffentlichen Raum mit sich.
  • Geben Sie keinen Alkohol an Personen unter 21 Jahren ab.

Alcohol indulgence
Not only the consumption of alcohol in public, but also the visible carrying of alcohol in public spaces can be punished locally. Alcohol must not be made available to persons under the age of 21. Proof of age (ID) is almost always required when purchasing alcohol.

  • Do not consume alcohol outside of your accommodation or restaurant.
  • Do not visibly carry alcoholic beverages with you in public places.
  • Do not give alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.

Nacktbaden
Nur an wenigen Stränden ist Nacktbaden zulässig oder geduldet. Ansonsten kann nicht nur das Nacktbaden, sondern auch schon das Umziehen am Strand als Erregung öffentlichen Ärgernisses aufgefasst werden und zu Unannehmlichkeiten führen. Dasselbe gilt für das Baden ohne Oberteil – nicht nur von Frauen, sondern auch von kleinen Mädchen.

  • Baden Sie nicht nackt, wenn dies nicht ausnahmsweise zulässig ist.
  • Baden Sie als Frau nicht ohne Oberteil.
  • Lassen Sie auch von Ihnen zu beaufsichtigende kleine Mädchen nicht ohne Oberteil baden.

Nude bathing
Nude bathing is only permitted or tolerated on a few beaches. Otherwise, not only is nude bathing, but even changing clothes on the beach can be seen as a public nuisance and lead to inconveniences. The same goes for topless bathing – not just for women, but for little girls too.

  • Do not bathe naked unless this is explicitly permitted.
  • As a woman, do not bathe without a top.
  • Do not let the little girls you supervise bathe without tops either.

Verletzung der Aufsichtspflicht
In einigen Bundesstaaten ist es strafbar, Kinder bestimmter Altersstufen unbeaufsichtigt zu lassen. Grundsätzlich gilt, dass Kinder unter acht Jahren nie, und Kinder unter 13 Jahren nur kürzeste Zeit unbeaufsichtigt sein sollten.

  • Lassen Sie Ihre Kinder auch nicht nur für kurze Zeit alleine im Hotel oder im Auto zurück.

Breach of the duty of supervision
In some states it is a criminal offense to leave children of certain ages unattended. Basically, children under the age of eight should never be left unsupervised and children under the age of 13 should only be left unsupervised for a very short time.

  • Do not leave your children alone in the hotel or in the car, even for just a short time.

Öffentliches Stillen
Das Stillen in der Öffentlichkeit ist seit 2018 in allen U.S.-Bundesstaaten legal.

  • Unterlassen Sie vorsichtshalber dennoch das Stillen in Restaurants und Bars bzw. in weniger liberalen Gegenden.

Public Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding in public has been legal in all U.S. states since 2018.

  • As a precaution, however, refrain from breastfeeding in restaurants and bars or in less liberal areas.

Sources:

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  • More advice from auswaertiges-amt.de/de/service/laender/usa-node/… (translated) : "Child pornography and child abuse are punished with high penalties in the USA . Even minor suspicions can lead to charges. / Refrain from photographing children who are not fully clothed, including your own. / Sexual acts on minors are punishable by law and are often punished with long prison sentences. The minimum age for effective consent to sexual activity varies by state. / Repeatedly stalking or harassing another person is a criminal offense." Apr 30, 2023 at 11:19
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    You could add in that the nude bathing rules also apply to very small children. On a German beach where a nude grown up would be very out of place nobody would care about a naked 2-year-old. In the US even the naked 2-year-old can land the parents in trouble.
    – quarague
    May 4, 2023 at 13:11
  • @quarague That is covered in the topic Nude bathing: not just for women, but for little girls too. ; Do not let the little girls you supervise bathe without tops either. May 4, 2023 at 13:17
  • @MarkJohnson The item about women being topless is outdated. There are several states where it is legal, and I believed that it is being challenged in general as an "equal rights" issue.
    – Peter M
    May 6, 2023 at 16:00
  • @PeterM Feel free to inform the German Federal Foreign Office, it is their advice. May 6, 2023 at 22:03
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If you are driving a vehicle and get pulled over by the police for any reason (like speeding), DO NOT GET OUT OF THE CAR.

Pull over, park, lower your window so the officer can talk to you, and put your hands on the steering wheel where they can be seen. Don't even reach into your pocket or glove compartment for your license or insurance card. Wait for the officer to come and approach you, and then do what he/she says. Be polite, but don't volunteer any information that may hurt your case.

When you are asked for your license, then you grab your wallet. If you are asked to get out of the car, then you get out of the car. But don't do it without being ordered to.

Apparently, there are some countries in which it's normal etiquette for the pulled-over person to immediately exit the vehicle and then walk over to the police car. The United States is not such a country. If you do anything unusual, the cops are likely to get leery about it. And they are trained to defend themselves. With guns.

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+500

Here are some examples of things that some foreign visitors do in the U.S. that might get them in legal trouble. For pretty much every item, you can find a news article about a tourist actually doing this. Some, like arson (example https://nypost.com/2012/06/20/norwegian-man-busted-for-starting-multiple-fires-at-midtown-hotel/ ) are a crime anywhere, while others are more U.S.-specific.

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    Most of these things would not be considered "normal" in other similar countries, except possibly littering and drinking in public. Apr 22, 2023 at 20:21
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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    May 5, 2023 at 4:16
  • Use the chatroom for further discussion.
    – Willeke
    May 9, 2023 at 3:47
  • Dimitri Vulis, can you please stop the editing? I have been warned by the site for 'very much' editing about 6 edits back. You will not get the full list of things that can get you arrested, there is enough now that people will be warned to search and read more if interested.
    – Willeke
    May 9, 2023 at 16:19
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You can Google "Dumb laws" or read Three Felonies a Day to read about other stupid laws. There are even some websites dedicated to them.

Related: What items are forbidden to take when traveling to the US that would be OK in most other countries?


Here's an example I encountered:

In San Jose, California, and perhaps other US cities, attending some street motor shows can be a misdemeanor. Law:

A. Any individual who is present as a spectator, either on a public street or highway at an illegal motor vehicle speed contest or illegal exhibition of speed, with the intent to be present at such illegal motor vehicle speed contest or illegal exhibition of speed, is guilty of a misdemeanor subject to a maximum of six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.

It is sometimes applied (mirror):

Over 40 citations, many for municipal code spectator violations. These events are illegal and we will continue the enforcement.

This almost earned me a misdemeanor some night where I couldn't sleep due an "illegal motor vehicle speed contest" and I was tempted to watch that local tradition instead of attempting to sleep through the noise. Meanwhile, one could watch someone die without providing any help in the US, and that would typically be lawful.

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    "stupidlaws" is a joke site. Most of the laws listed there don't actually exist. Apr 28, 2023 at 12:24
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    @DimitriVulis bummer. I'll remove it then, thanks. There used to be a good site listing idiotic laws but I believe it went down and I forgot the name so I can't use the wayback machine. Apr 28, 2023 at 13:04
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    To quote Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_laws "A number of books and websites purport to list dumb laws. These are in many cases based on misunderstandings, exaggerations or outright fabrications" :) Apr 28, 2023 at 13:46
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    Here's some list rd.com/list/dumbest-laws-america that mostly has citations, so right away the rules aren't quite as dumb as the made-up ones. Apr 28, 2023 at 14:11
  • Some of the dumb laws are technically true, but not specifically legislated for. For example, if it's illegal to tie a pet to a fire hydrant (because it would get in the firefighters' way), and it's also illegal to own a pet alligator (because they're dangerous), then you can accurately say that it's illegal to tie a pet alligator to a fire hydrant. But this is the intersection of two separate laws, not one that was specially created in response to a Florida Man.
    – dan04
    May 5, 2023 at 3:32
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The US is a free country and your chances to get arrested are very low unless you do something obviously stupid.

A few things to look out for.

  1. Obviously: Don't commit any crimes. That, of course, is easier said than done. There are about 30,000 federal laws on the book and nobody knows how many state laws and local provisions exist. Laws between states do vary quite a bit (for example about Marihuana). If you are not sure its legal where you are: don't do it.
  2. Police has more discretion and less oversight than in most other civilized countries. Exercise caution and restraint when interacting with the authorities (regardless if you are right or not).
  3. The US has a strange process called "civil forfeiture" which allows police to steal your car or money even if you haven't done anything wrong at all. I recommend against carrying significant amounts of cash. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are ATMs everywhere.
  4. Some local police departments receive a large part of their revenue through the fines they dole out. Some towns do very aggressive "harvesting" of speeding, parking, or local ordinance violations of out-of-town drivers to fund their police. Don't speed, even if the locals do.
  5. There is a fair bit of profiling. Your chances to get detained, arrested and questioned depend a lot on your race and appearance. A coworker of mine was a young Arabic looking man with a middle eastern name. Despite him being a perfectly normal US citizen born in New Jersey, he would always go to the airport an hour earlier than the rest of us. He knew he would need extra time at security and check in.
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    You speak of arrest. What about avoiding summary execution? For example about 5 different people got shot in the past week for trivial mistakes such as ringing the wrong doorbell or pulling the door handle on the wrong car. Apr 22, 2023 at 16:32
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    You also say "your chances to get arrested are very low unless you do something obviously stupid" and then you list some reasons you might get arrested without doing anything obviously stupid. Apr 22, 2023 at 16:36
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    Only the first bullet gets you arrested. The other ones are "helpful to know" and may cost you money and you may get harassed and bothered. But an actual arrest for any of these is highly unlikely unless you get into an argument of fight with the cops. Don't do that.
    – Hilmar
    Apr 22, 2023 at 17:13
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    The question though was "what is obviously stupid in the US but not in the rest of the civilized world". The answer to that may be a long and non-exhaustive opinion based laundry list, but not your answer.
    – littleadv
    Apr 23, 2023 at 8:35
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    @jcaron Who cares whether it is the police or civilians who shoot you? Either way, you are dead. Apr 23, 2023 at 16:03

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