American tourists have a number of different problems to adapt to when they travel abroad. While most of these are relatively annoying, ranging from different foods and etiquette, there is another that needs to be allowed for: The law. There are a number of major differences between the laws in Europe vs USA and tourists need to be aware of them. This is because there are a number of different assumptions and attitudes when it comes to enforcement of the law, and those differences should be discussed by anyone traveling in Europe so as to avoid the possibility of jail or other punishments while visiting those countries.
The first, and possibly biggest difference, is that the judicial system has an entirely different basis: While the American system is based on the idea that a person is innocent unless proven guilty, most European countries are based on the idea that a person is guilty unless proven otherwise. This means that investigations tend to be more thorough, attempting to ensure that the person is innocent. Thus, when the person is finally brought to court the person’s guilt is pretty much assured and the defense must prove the person’s innocent. Also, the punishments for crimes tend to be more strict, with less leeway, so a defendant has a very good idea what will happen when a guilty sentence is passed.
Another difference is that Europeans tend to take their culture very serious, and this has led to some rather interesting laws. The one that most people will run into is that certain products have a more legalized definition based on the history of a product; for example, “champagne” may only be called such if it is from a specific region in France made of specific grapes. There are also laws prohibiting certain statements, most notably those of denying the Holocaust or the literature regarding certain groups. That attitude towards culture needs to be allowed for when travelling, and a little research goes a long way.
Obviously there are other differences, such as the prevalence of mediation courts throughout Europe; there are a number of places within Europe that eschew the standard legal system for one reason or another. As usual, check the local laws of the country you wish to travel to or through, especially if you wish to do any business there. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse, and that is one thing that will always be true.