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Does driver in Beverly Hills high-speed race have diplomatic immunity?

Last Updated Sep 17, 2015 6:59 PM EDT

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - On Saturday, September 12, police in Beverly Hills responded to a complaint of reckless driving after neighbors videotaped two luxury cars speeding through a residential neighborhood.

When they questioned a man who said he owned the cars, police say he denied driving recklessly and claimed he had diplomatic immunity.

But at a press conference Thursday morning, Beverly Hills police said they have connected the Ferrari seen on the video to a Qatari national named Sheik Khalid Bin Hamad-Althani, and that not only does he "likely" not have diplomatic immunity, but police believe he is no longer in the country.

According to Ruth Wedgwood, a former federal prosecutor and current professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University, the concept of diplomatic immunity has been customary since the 1800s, and was codified into international law in 1961. Its purpose was to keep high-level diplomats working in foreign nations from being arrested on bogus charges and questioned about state secrets. The privilege keeps such diplomats from being arrested or even being compelled to serve as witnesses, and can extend to their families as well.

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Two luxury cars were caught racing through the streets of Beverly Hills, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015.
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But, Wedgwood points out, there is no Qatari embassy in Los Angeles - only a consulate.

"Consular immunity is much more narrow than diplomatic immunity," Wedgwood told 48 Hours' Crimesider.

Wedgwood said that consular immunity only extends to official acts - not, presumably, driving at high-speeds though a residential neighborhood - and is not absolute.

The Qatar consultant of Los Angeles did not reply to 48 Hours' request for comment on the case.

In an email to Crimesider, the State Department said it was "unaware of any accredited members of a foreign mission being directly involved in this case. Therefore, it appears that neither diplomatic nor consular immunity applies."

Police say they were unable to make an arrest or issue a citation in the case because, under California law, an officer must witness a misdemeanor offense in order to make an arrest. They say they will be on the lookout for the two vehicles seen in the video - including the Ferrari which reportedly retails for $1.5 million - and "have stepped up enforcement for reckless activity in the neighborhood where the incident took place."

Police are also asking the public for help in identifying the drivers of the vehicles and obtaining any additional video footage of the incident.

Witnesses are encouraged to call BHPD 24 hour Tip-line at 310-288-2656. Videos, photos or additional information can be submitted to: BHPDInfo@beverlyhills.org.

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com