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Good Question: What Is Diplomatic Immunity?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - Two men were caught on video street racing in a residential Beverly Hills neighborhood over the weekend.  Local police and the U.S. Department of State are now investigating whether they can do anything about it.  One of the men told a reporter he has diplomatic immunity. Police say that man is from Qatar.

So, that had John from Hopkins wanting to know: What is diplomatic immunity? Good Question.

According to the State Department, diplomatic immunity is "a principle of international law by which certain foreign government officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of local courts and other authorities for both their official and, to a large extent, their personal activities."

That means if a foreign diplomat commits a crime in another country, he or she cannot be arrested, detained or even handcuffed (except in extraordinary circumstances).

In the U.S., there are over 100,000 representatives of foreign governments, including dependents. Many of these people have varying degree of immunity. Diplomatic agents and their families have the highest level of immunity, including complete immunity from criminal jurisdictions and most civil suits. Administrative diplomatic staff also have total criminal immunity, but their civil immunity is tied only to their job. Service diplomatic staff have very limited immunity that is tied to their job description.

Diplomatic immunity is based on the 1961 Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations.  For the most part, all countries abide by that international treaty. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations also gives very limited immunity to consular personnel.

As for why diplomatic immunity exists, Fred Morrison, a professor of international law at the University of Minnesota, says it's because sometimes diplomats go to friendly countries and sometimes they don't.

"The concern always has been, and this goes back to the ancient Greeks, that the diplomat will be punished not for his own acts, but for the attitudes of the country," he said. "So, the only way to protect against that is to say you cannot punish him."

In very serious, but rare, cases, a host country can kick a diplomat out or a sending country can take immunity away.

"The country can simply say, 'We disclaim you, we waive your diplomatic immunity,'" Morrison said. "Then the U.S. is free to proceed."

In 1997, Georgia waived immunity when one of its diplomats, Gueorgui Makharadze, killed a Maryland teenager in a drunk driving accident. He was sentenced in the U.S. to seven years in prison.

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