Diplomatic immunity/constitutional immunity

Diplomatic immunity I’ve heard of. Apparently congress members get away with traffic violations. What else do these groups get a way with? Can they end up in civil court for damages caused?

Congress members do have some immunity from arrest (tickets too, I guess) while in the performance of their duties. But of course, it’s been abused to no end.

DC cops kinda dismiss it, 'cuz I’d never heard of it until some congressman from West Virginia was driving home from DC (about a 90 minute drive) and was in a little fender-bender just west of Fairfax, VA. He claimed Congressional Immunity (CI) and was set on his way. The papers got wind of it and raised a righteous stink. He later went back to Fairfax and accepted a ticket.

At Ronald Wilson Reagan Washington National Airport ( :)), Sen. Kennedy at one time had dozens of parking tickets that he dismissed because of CI. Now, congress members had a free parking lot, but it wasn’t the closest lot to the main terminal. And of course, Teddy’s tickets were all from the closest lot.

CI was instituted because of fears that certain factions would have the local constable arrest and hold congressmen on their way to DC to perform their duties in the hopes of altering crutial votes. IMO, it was a good idea when it took days or weeks to get cross-country. But maybe not so much now.

You said “these groups”, so I assume you mean diplomatic immunity as well. The short answer to that is, damn near about anything.

There’s been cases of diplomats, or more commonly, family members of diplomats in the US committing theft, acts of violence, rape, drug possession, manslaughter and various other things but getting away uncharged due to Diplomatic Immunity. I don’t know if there’s been a case of 1st degree murder protected by DI, but it wouldn’t suprise me.

This, hopefully, is changing. In 1998 the House passed the Dreier bill which requires the Sec. of State’s office to compile a listing of everyone in the US who has DI, what crimes they’ve committed, and submit it out to Congress. I think the theory is that we can take this list to the heads of other countries and demand some sort of payback for what the diplomats did. With some countries this isn’t much of an issue anyway. After all, you don’t want to risk cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States just because the 25 year old son of your nation’s diplomat raped some 15 year old girl at a rave. At the same time, if it gets hit big by the media, it’s a hard pill to swallow to publicly punish said son in front of the collective eyes of the western world.

One of the biggest problems is of course, if we ditch DI in out country, then our own diplomats will be severely restricted in other countries, perhaps to the point of being in real danger. After all, one of the reasons for DI if so our diplomats aren’t arrested in Lebanon and forced to spend 16 years in prison eating mice just because they failed to observe a curfew or something. and it has to be extended to all classes of crimes for the same reason. If we say “Well, if you commit a violent crime, we get to lock you away”, what happens to some poor diplomat in Luxembourg who gets mugged, fights the mugger, and is picked up for assault or something? Or for that matter, even if it is his fault and he gets into a punching match over a game of darts.

But, to asnwer your original question again, DI provides full criminal immunity to diplomats and their families residing in the United States.

“I guess it is possible for one person to make a difference, although most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

Oh! As a side note, yes you could press civil charges against someone protected by DI, but without having won a criminal case and because of the aura of DI, your chances of winning are about nil. I can’t think of anyone winning a case, and can think of several that were lost, though it was mainly because of a lack of evidence since no criminal case was ever persued. Also, you have to convince the other nation to force it’s diplomat to pay up to the US courts. As you can imagine, the parents of the 15 year old girl in my above example have about no chance of making Rwanda force its diplo’s son to cough up or even come to the US to stand trial.

“I guess it is possible for one person to make a difference, although most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

With regard to diplomats involved in car accidents; per the Diplomatic Relations Act of 1978, all vehicles of diplomats are required to have liability insurance, and the insurance companies can be sued for damages. Police can also prevent diplomats from driving if they are under the inluence of alcohol.

Fact Sheet: Diplomatic Immunity prepared by the U.S.Department of State, Office of the Legal Adviser


“Believe those who seek the truth.
Doubt those who find it.” --Andre Gide

BTW, DI applies only to diplomats when outside their nation, not within. I’ve twice seen a US diplomat [attempt] to claim DI in the US.

I don’t think we have had to put up with granting a murderer DI (extradition fights after flight are a different issue), but the Brits had a nasty case where some scumbag shot and killed a woman police officer who was defending his embassy from an angry mob. He was hustled out of Britain, but no action was taken against him in his home country.

Of course particularly noxious offenders are declared persona non grata, meaning they’re kicked out the country and told if they ever set foot on our soil again, they’ll be arrested.

Let’s not forget one rather interesting aspect of Diplomatic Immunity: the individual may claim protection under such; however, it’s up to his sponsoring government (the Embassy or Consulate, in practice) to extend that coverage to him. Such a thing happened not too long ago when a foreign diplomat killed a child when he (the diplomat) was driving drunk. The sponsoring government said, “He’s yours; have at it” to the U.S. legal system.

I vaguely remember that Cecil may have covered this subject, in some way.

More tidbits: diplomatic immunity refers to immunity from laws of the country where the foreign service officer is found. It does not protect from violation of international law - an example would be the international treaties covering endangered species - although in practice it’s rarely done… IIRC in a couple instances the [personal] goods didn’t have the appropriate papers, and were confiscated by Customs. Although no charges were brought in the US, they were back home.

One other question along the OP: if they’re travelling, not on official business, in a third country, and violate some local law, does DI hold water then ? IIRC it usually does, but is much more tenuous…

Jorge: your last query was very much the subject of a case before the Law Lords in the United Kingdom. It seems the government of Spain wants to try a former dictator of a South American country for killing Spanish citizens in that country.

This may be somewhat on the arcane side, but I’m curious regarding what relationship DI has with the old imperialistic principle of “extraterritoriality”, or “extrality” for short. Back in the days when the sun never set on the Empire, countries deemed as having less-developed legal systems were often forced by Britain and other imperial powers to adhere to this principle. In short, if a British subject committed a crime within the borders of (say) China, that nation would have to give up the offender for trial by British courts. Hence, any echoes of “extrality” are taken very seriously by formerly-colonized or semi-colonized countries like China. I’m wondering if there have been any challenges to DI as an extension of any country’s general anti-“extrality” principles.


Monty: Ah, Pinochet… but that revolves around DI for former activities (as in “are retired heads of state still covered ?”, although 3rd country issues are being touched on).

DR: not just the British Empire. Check US Army General Orders for the Philippines in the colonial period, and the 1999 Armed Forces agreements with same nation… US soldier rapes kid, gets tried by US court, hopefully, but is certainly removed from local jurisdiction/authority. Not DI, but nearly.

O le mea a tamaali’i fa’asala, a o le mea a tufanua fa’alumaina.


Of course, if we’re talking about the military, then the most prominent example of the past few years would be the case of a US Marine that allegedly raped a Japanese teenager in Okinawa. (Was that the case you were referring to?) There was an outcry over the fact that he was immune from local jurisdiction, instead being court martialed by the Marines–and he was convicted, IIRC. Another would be that USAF (?) pilot in Italy that was hotdogging through the Alps and ended up severing a cable car line (killing all that were aboard the car). That was handled by court martial as well.

Such cases are indeed controversial, but I was wondering more about extraterritoriality in the colonial sense–where not just members of the military, but any national of a particular country would be immune from another country’s jurisdiction. I think some idiotic Americans go abroad and commit some offenses and then are actually surprised that they end up in a local court.



The U.S. military on Okinawa was not immune from local jurisdiction. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) provides for the accused to be held on base in the military facilities until the civilian authorities decided if the accused would be prosecuted by the civilian authorities or by the American military. That applies only to crimes committed “not in the peformance of one’s duty.” If the crime (say, vehicular manslaughter whilst driving a duty van on a delivery run) occurrs on duty, then there’s no question–the military has sole jurisdiction.

FWIW, the maximum penalty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for a rape, even during peacetime, is Death. The Japanese courts, IIRC, gave sentences ranging from three to seven years, with the seven year sentence to the main culprit. Of course, he’s appealed that to the Japanese Supreme Court (“The sentence is too harsh!”) I doubt he’ll be successful.

In regards to the cable car incident in Italy: the SOFA there also stipulates that for something occurring on duty, the accused shall be prosecuted by the U.S. military authorities.

An addendum to the military issue:

One of the last things the U.S. military had to do when the bases in the Philippines were returned to the Philippine government and our forces withdrew was to transfer all military personnel held on base who had been charged with crimes off base to the local jail. One of the NIS (Naval Investigative Service) agents who had to perform that duty told me of one young Sailor who told the Olongapo City Jail cops “you can’t tell me what to do; I’m an American.” The cops, understandably, indicated in, shall we say, a certain manner that his nationality didn’t matter a whit.

Doghouse, I was referring both to incidents of the military-only type (for which Monty kindly, & accurately, described some examples) as well as an original G.O., pre-WW2, which brought all 'Mericans out of local justice. Granted, it was because the “territorial” government was military, as U.S. had no mechanism for colonial government… The only remaining vestiges of the extraterritoriality remain with SOFA’s (American or otherwise) I think.

The “I’m American, you can’t do this” results not from any partial memory of historical precedents IMHO, but rather undue assumptions about the State Dept. and overexposure to Chuck Norris films.

Jorge: I appreciate your comments above. I also feel the need to elaborate a tad on what a SOFA is.

A Status of Forces Agreement is a treaty enacted into law by the nations party to the treaty. As such, it’s the law of the land for both nations.