In everyday matters, if you are stopped by the police, remember that there is no system for paying traffic or other fines on the spot. Attempting to pay a fine to an officer is frowned upon at best and may result in a charge of bribery. For traffic offenses, the police officer or highway patroller will explain the options to you. There is usually a 30-day period to pay a fine. Most matters can be handled by mail.

If you are arrested, you have a legal right to an attorney and you are allowed to remain silent. There is no legal reason to speak to a police officer if you don't wish, but never walk away from an officer until given permission to do so.

Anyone who is arrested is legally allowed to make one phone call. If you can't afford a lawyer, a public defender will be appointed to you free of charge. Foreign visitors who don't have a lawyer, friend or family member to help should call their embassy; the police will provide the number upon request.

As a matter of principle, the US legal system presumes a person innocent until proven guilty. Each state has its own civil and criminal laws, and what is legal in one state may be illegal in others.


In all states, driving under the influence of alcohol (the blood-alcohol limit is 0.08%) or drugs is a serious offense, subject to stiff fines and even imprisonment.


Recreational drugs are prohibited by federal and most state laws. Washington, Colorado, California, Nevada and Oregon all allow recreational marijuana use, but it is still illegal to smoke in public (which includes hotel rooms). As of 2017, it is legally possible to purchase marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Note that pot use still remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Possession of any illicit drug, including cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin and hashish – or more than an ounce of pot (outside of the states listed above) – is a felony potentially punishable by lengthy jail sentences. For foreigners, conviction of any drug offense is grounds for deportation.