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What is some good advice for writing about things done, in an autobiographical sense, that may have been or still are illegal?

For example, smoking or buying marijuana is illegal in many countries, yet people write about doing this without a problem. Likewise other minor illegal acts such as sex in public, harder drugs, etc also seem to be written about (Look at Hunter Thompson for example) without any consequence.

Is it a matter of degree? O.J. Simpsons was found innocent by a court of law, yet his book If I Did It was taken by some to be a confession of sorts. However this did not prompt any new investigations that I am aware of.

I want to write some stories about my travels and adventures without facing consequences for what I saw as minor, mostly harmless and/or necessary and infractions at the time.

What should I keep in mind and how free/honest can I be?

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In essence, the question is: "Can a purportedly nonfiction book be used as evidence in court?" Logically speaking, the author could have written anything whatsoever. There is no physical evidence to prove that what is written actually took place. Therefore, the answer must be 'no, you don't have to worry about it.' However, if you say you murdered someone and buried the body at latitude X and longitude Y and someone goes digging and finds it, that's a whole other can of worms. You get my drift? – Aerovistae Apr 2 '12 at 6:22
Also, in the case of O.J.-- even if my prior comment were invalid, remember the law regarding double jeopardy. – Aerovistae Apr 2 '12 at 6:23
Separately, I suggest that if you are writing about someone else committing these illegal deeds with you, get that person's permission before identifying him or her in your book, or construct a pseudonym or otherwise blur your friend's identity. You may not mind volunteering that you smoked a bit of weed, but your friend might object to having the world know. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 2 '12 at 9:53
@Aerovistae Bear in mind that "double jeopardy" is an American legal principle. Britain repealed their double jeopardy law about 10 years ago, and many countries have no such law. And even in the U.S., the protection is very weak. The courts have ruled that you can't be tried twice for the same offense, but you can be tried for other offenses related to the same event. Ever notice how when someone is charged with a major crime, they often say "10 counts of robbery, 3 counts of assault, and 2 counts of kidnapping" or some such? Each of those is a separate crime. So if, say, you rob a bank, ... – Jay May 6 at 14:16
... and you are charged with robbery but are found not guilty, but then later the police get new evidence, they can come back and say, in the course of the robbery you threatened the teller with a gun, that's a separate crime from the robbery itself, and so you could then be charged with that crime. In fact prosecutors today often "hold back" some charges just to cover this possibility. – Jay May 6 at 14:18

3 Answers 3

Be free and honest in what you did, unless you committed an extremely serious offence - murder, serious fraud, rape - because your writing does not, as a rule, constitute a formal confession. The police would have to find other evidence that you committed the crime to make it worth their while investigating - with acts like drug taking or public lewdity, that is unlikely to be still present.

If you are talking about crimes of violence or large scale activity, then the police are liable to consider it worth their while to investigate, in which case your writing may be a starting point, but unless you make a formal confession, the writings you publish are merely a small piece of evidence.

Of course, as you are talking about travelling, you may want to consider whether you ever wish to return to those countries that you committed "minor infractions" in. Irrespective of your guilt or otherwise, they might not be prepared to let you pass the border again.

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I am not a lawyer. But ...

I don't know how police and courts treat an autobiography. I've never heard of someone being convicted of a crime because he confessed to it in an autobiography. But a very common method for police to catch a criminal is that he tells someone else about the crime and that person reports it to the police. Many criminals seem to get caught because they foolishly brag about how they got away with it to their buddies at the bar. And I've seen several stories in the news lately about people being arrested after making posts on Facebook and the like describing a crime they just committed. So I wouldn't just assume that something you put in a book "doesn't count".

As others have noted, a lot depends on the seriousness of the crime. If you write that 20 years ago you exceeded the speed limit by 2 miles per hour, I can't imagine that the police or courts would care enough to track you down on this. On the other hand, if you write that you were the person who committed an unsolved murder, then I think the authorities will be interested.

You mention committing various (minor) illegal acts while travelling. That means we are talking about the laws of not just one country, but many. Even if a lawyer assured you 100% that mentioning in your book that you smoked marijuana in the United States won't get you into trouble, maybe it will get you in trouble if you say you did it in Saudi Arabia or Singapore and then return to that country.

I wouldn't be too encouraged by the fact that some celebrity confessed to drug use in a book and nothing came of it. I don't want to get off into politics, but I think reality is that the rich and famous get away with things that ordinary people do not. When a famous Hollywood actor is caught using drugs, they get sent to a luxury rehab clinic. When some poor man living in a trailer park is caught using drugs, he goes to prison. When Timothy Geitner, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, was found not to have paid his taxes for several years, he was forced to promise not to do it again. If you or I did that, we'd be in jail. Etc.

My take: I'd talk to a lawyer and generally be very careful.

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For what you're deciding to write, you could create an outline and ask a lawyer to consider the possible ramifications if the authorities decided to act upon it.

However, you'd probably be better off introducing a secondary character that performed the various actions that you're concerned about.

In Farley Mowat's And No Birds Sang, his autobiographical account of his WWII experienced made note of an event where "someone else," mowed down some German soldiers with a machine gun, though from the context you can realize that he was actually describing something that he had done.

However, even fictional writing can get you in trouble. An absurd case involved Steve Jackson games back in the early 1990's, where their offices were stormed by the Secret Service, resulting in the seizure of their computers and related equipment. As it turns out, one of their games, GURPS Cyberpunk, sounded too realistic, which brought down the authorities. Keep in mind that this was six years after the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson.

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