Civil liberties on the line

In fall of 2003, two American men were arrested for engaging in child prostitution in Cambodia. The detainment of proven pedophiles is unquestionably a service to mankind, but the legal repercussions of prosecuting someone in the United States for a crime they committed abroad is unsettling.

The Public Records Open to End Child Tragedy Act, better known as the PROTECT Act “strengthens law enforcement’s ability to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish violent crimes committed against children,” according to a Department of Justice release.

In the cases of the two Seattle men indicted with these charges, collaboration with Cambodian law enforcement and non-governmental organizations led to their identification and arrest. While child prostitution is illegal in both countries, the question remains as to why these men are being tried in the America and not in Cambodia.

Effectively, the PROTECT Act makes it possible for laws concerning the abuse of children to follow U.S. citizens anywhere in the world. But if that philosophy is expanded to include other crimes, the sovereignty of a nation’s laws may no longer be limited to its physical borders.

Imagine a teenager on a cruise with his or her family. While in international waters, there is no law prohibiting minors from gambling. If he or she puts a few coins in an on-board slot machine, could a citation for underage gambling be issued upon returning to the United States?

The issue of international waters is one where no single country’s laws apply. But there are places where laws simply conflict with U.S. laws.

In parts of Europe, it is legal to drink at the age of 18. Would American citizens under the age of 21 who enjoyed a beer in an Irish pub be cited upon returning home?

It is unlikely that the framers of the PROTECT Act plan to expand all U.S. laws in such a way, but it is common practice for the judiciary and law enforcement to find new ways to apply a law.

Even with the best intentions, a law can be stretched beyond its original intent and what began as a benefit may end up impinging upon civil liberties.

The PATRIOT Act passed after Sept. 11, 2001 is just such an example. Intended to combat terrorism, some everyday Americans are feeling the burn according to a Dec. 21 Sacramento Bee article.

A provision of the act allows law enforcement to collect detailed financial information about suspects in money-laundering cases. Of the 167 uses of the provision from Feb. – Oct. of 2003, only 60 involved terrorism cases, according to the article.

If it is now legal to prosecute a pedophile for crimes committed abroad, it is possible to expand that philosophy and charge other travelers for more minor infractions. While it is doubtful that police would chase down a curious teenager on vacation, the threat of such a prospect is an insult to the freedom of privacy.

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