Diplomatic Immunity

Article excerpt

The concept of immunity began with ancient tribes. Ancient Greek and Roman governments understood that in order for important information to flow freely, messengers bearing that information would have to be protected. The messengers from rival tribes were allowed to travel with impunity; killing a messenger was considered a breach of honor.

The concept of immunity between nations' representatives is still respected. The concept was codified as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961. Diplomatic Immunity is the principle of international law which establishes that certain foreign government officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of local courts or other authorities.

There are over 100,000 representatives of foreign governments in the United States, most of whom live and work in the Washington, DC and New York City area. However a large number are assigned to major cities throughout the country. Almost all of the foreign representatives and their families are free to travel anywhere in the United States for business or pleasure so it is plausible that any law officer in the country may encounter a person claiming diplomatic immunity.

Many law officers do not fully understand diplomatic immunity so they may be inclined to be overly generous in its application. Officers are obligated under law to recognize and respect a person's immunity status but are not expected to ignore or condone the commission of crimes.

The US Department of State administers diplomatic immunity issues. It recognizes two levels of immunity afforded to foreigns based on their job and status. Diplomatic agents (ambassadors), their diplomatic staff and family (spouses and children until the age of 21) are afforded full criminal immunity.

Full criminal immunity is more than immunity from prosecution. It means the person can not be detained, searched or arrested, and can not be required to give evidence as a witness. Service staff members have limited criminal immunity. The service staff, including chauffeurs and domestic help, can be detained, arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts. Service staff can be required to give evidence as a witness and their persons and property can be searched. Family of the service staff has no immunity.

If summoned to the scene of a criminal investigation involving a person who claims diplomatic immunity, an officer should first attempt to verify the status of the suspect with the US Department of State (or with the US Mission to the United Nations). Once the status has been verified the officer should note information necessary for the report and the person must be released.

A protected person cannot be handcuffed unless he is presenting an immediate threat to safety. The person may not be detained or arrested. If the status cannot be verified the officer will inform the person that he will be detained until the immunity status can be confirmed. …