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Basics of legal system in the US (Professional Life in the US, and Information on Life in America) >> Book >> Section 3

Basics of legal system in the US for Immigrants

Indians moving to the US get the first glimpse of law and legal system much before they set foot on American soil. The immigration and visa paperwork is perhaps the first brush with American legal system for most Indians. Even when employers sponsor the visa applications, individuals need to go to the local embassy or consulate, present the paperwork and get a visa stamp on the passport. After arriving in the US, passing through immigration, acquiring the local drivers license and social security or tax id’s, most Indians settle into a normal life with very little brush with the law.

Professionals, even those of us working abroad, are content to live our lives hoping we don’t encounter any skirmish with the law or law enforcement officials. However, Indians who live abroad have a special responsibility to understand and follow at least the basics of law that governs the land. This is because of a basic doctrine of law that says `Ignorantia juris non excusat’, literally translating to the fact that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. This is a tenet of law that governs the legal system in most modern nations. What this means is that residents need to follow the law of the land and act in a way that shows an understanding of the social and legal system in the US.

International residents and foreigners in the US with a valid visa have the same rights and responsibilities as American citizen. If an individual is arrested and taken into custody, the police must inform him of his rights and make certain that he understands these rights. The individual may refuse to answer any questions without legal counsel present and has every right to be represented by a lawyer, and if he cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint one. The crux of this is the fact that one cannot be convicted of a crime without a proper trial. As a foreigner, individuals do not have special rights too, for example, the Indian embassy or consulate may only play a limited role if an Indian is convicted in a criminal case.

The right against unlawful persecution or detention does not apply to foreigners who are in the country illegally or those detained by immigration officials on immigration charges. After September 11th, the government is working on special steps to ensure a crack-down on illegal aliens and those who overstay their visas. This is becoming significant because the perpetrators of the crime were foreigners in the US who had overstayed their visa.

There are a few common “errors of judgment” one must avoid at all costs. Drunk-driving, shoplifting, use of drugs and controlled substances are serious enough to get one deported. Physical violence and altercation in public places should be avoided at all costs. There have been a number of instances when INS has refused green cards to people with even “simple” criminal records like shoplifting. Criminal acts are subject to severe punishment, and many states in the US still advocate death sentences.

Most Indians in the US generally interact with their lawyers for one main reason – immigration and H1 paperwork processing. Because of the complexity of laws governing H1-B and immigration most of us seek the assistance of immigration lawyers. A good immigration attorney can be invaluable in one’s quest for a green card or H1 sponsorship. Even employers prefer to contract out the immigration related tasks to specialized attorneys who work with in-house consuls. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the local Indian publications, newspapers, magazines, Web portals and chat-boards. Indian newspapers in the US devote at least a page for classifieds of immigration lawyers and attorneys. 


In America, police is responsible for protecting the public, criminal investigation, apprehension of criminals, and enforcing motor vehicle traffic laws. In addition, they also enforce parking regulations. Local police are expected to respond to any reported disturbance of the peace, suspected crime or suspicious activity.  Police are generally public employees and are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects this relationship. American police are generally liked and respected, not feared, for their authority. There are precise legal procedures that direct police conduct in order to protect the civil rights of both law-abiding persons and suspected criminals.

The two police forces that most people encounter are the local police and the state police. Local police are defined by their jurisdiction - city, township or county - and are responsible for law enforcement within a well-defined area. Although their primary activities are the regulation of traffic, parking, and maintaining order, they investigate serious crimes as well. NYPD – New York Police Department is perhaps one of the most glamorous police forces that received international acclaim in the handling the aftermath of the NYC bombing. The most serious class of crime under American law is called a "felony"; the less serious is a "misdemeanor". State police forces are known by various names - e.g., the Colorado State Patrol, the Texas Rangers, etc. State police forces are responsible for patrolling state roads and Federal highways within the state. In most states, they are also responsible for the protection of government property and providing security for officials.  

There are a number of other federal (central) police bodies that one needs to be aware of, although the only ones most of us will deal with are the customs and immigration officials. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is responsible for investigation of interstate crime, internal espionage, and terrorism, as well as the maintenance of a national database to assist state and local police forces. The other main Federal law enforcement forces include the Drug Enforcement Agency; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

Traffic Offences

For most people, the most likely encounter with the law, might come in the form of traffic violations such as speeding and accidents. While driving on any public road, one needs to be prepared to be stopped by a police officer for speeding or other traffic inspection. Most roads have speed markers prominently placed, and the enforcement is quite rigorous with automatic speed cameras and radars being increasingly used.

For traffic violations, such as speeding, people are generally issued a "ticket" or "citation" on the spot, which may either be paid by mail or at a local traffic court. The procedure in the courts is generally streamlined and organized. One can either accept the ‘plea bargain’ or judgment, pay the specified fine and walk away; or in rare cases, argue the case in front of a judge. Traffic citations and tickets are a matter of public record and affect both your driver's license status and insurance rates. Parking violations can be paid by mail, but sometimes require a court appearance. In most instances, except for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol), traffic violations are not considered criminal offenses.  Word of caution: One should never attempt to bribe a police official in the United States. The penalties for attempted bribery are much more serious than penalties for any traffic violation!

Traffic accidents are generally unpredictable and when they do occur, we need to be prepared. The law in the US, when it comes to traffic accidents is very clear. In case of an accident, both parties, regardless of who is at fault, need to exchange their name, phone number and insurance details. Generally a police officer arrives at the scene within a few minutes of the accident, notes all the information and gives a ‘ticket’ and summons to appear at the local court on a specified date.


Traffic violations or accidents are not the only time people go to court. There were a number of well-publicised cases filed by Indians in the US that made headlines in recent times. One of the most publicized cases is the one filed by the Gujarati software engineer Dipen Joshi, who sued his employer for trying to enforce an illegal bond. This case was interesting for a number of reasons. Indians, especially those on H1 visas rarely lash out against employers, even when they are subject to undue harassment. 

Joshi had arrived in the US in March 1998, hired by a California based company Compubahn, which was supposed to contract him to work for high-technology firms in Silicon Valley. Compubahn has offices in Union City, California, and Woodbridge, Virginia, and its clients include Oracle and Sun Microsystems. For the first six months, Joshi was not placed anywhere. Then, in September, he was sub-contracted to another consultancy that placed him with Oracle. In June 1999, Joshi decided to leave Compubahn and join Oracle. Compubahn responded by demanding $77,085 from Joshi in damages for leaving before his 18-month contract was over. Joshi hired a lawyer in California who not only managed to blow holes through Compubahn’s case but also recovered a hefty settlement. According to the ruling, Compubahn had to pay $207,051.50 in legal fees and $7,999.11 for other expenses. For Joshi, winning the lawsuit did not entail big gains since his lawyer managed to pocket most of the $207,051, making some wonder if it was really worth the trouble. Of course the flip side of this case is the moral victory that Joshi won, giving courage to others in a similar predicament who could consider legal options open to them.

Another recent lawsuit was the McDonalds-beef-in-fries case. A couple of Hindus in the US filed a suit against McDonalds claiming that it misrepresented the presence of beef-extract in its fries. The company was under fire from Hindus all over the world who rallied around, shocked that a multinational could blatantly hide a fact sacred to most vegetarians. Details of any monetary settlement are unknown but the case resulted in a public relations nightmare for the company.

Sometimes, individuals balk at the thought of going to court, even when they realize that they were wronged, little realizing that the system is designed to provide them justice. In the following section, I narrate an anecdote of my experience at an American small claims court. I had an opportunity to test the strength of the American legal system and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome



Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2002- 2013

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Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. Any mentions of commercial products, company names, or universities are solely for information purposes and do not imply any endorsement by the Author or any other entity. The Author provides this article "as is." The Author disclaims any express or implied warranties including, but not limited to, any implied warranties of commercial value, accuracy, or fitness for any particular purpose. If you use the information in this document in any way, you do so entirely at your own risk.

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Book Index

  • Intro
  • Section 1: Visas and Immigration
  • Section 2 Finances
  • Section 3 Law and legal system
  • Section 4 Consumerism
  • Section 5 Life and weekends in the US
  • Section 6 Health and lifestyle
  • Section 7 Demographics
  • Section 8 Indians in America: Looking to the future after Sep 11th
  • Section 9 Preparing for the next wave
  • Appendix

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