If you’re a diplomat on U.S. soil, you can steal, plunder and murder to your heart’s content without having to face the legal ramifications of your actions. But, by God, you better pay your parking tickets in New York City.
If not, your car can be towed, your registration renewal can be denied, your plates can be confiscated and some of the foreign aid your country receives might be withheld.
It’s essentially the only form of punishment leveled against foreign diplomats by the U.S. often enough to be codified, and all of the punishments exclusively apply to New York parking violations. (A similar program exists in Washington D.C. too.)
Before we talk about these particular strange laws, a quick explanation on the core concept of immunity.
For the uninitiated, diplomats enjoy “diplomatic immunity” when officially stationed in a foreign nation. That means they can’t be held to any of the host nation’s laws and are immune to civil prosecution for their official business. This helps to ensure that countries don’t imprison diplomats for political purposes and countries can send emissaries to nations with strict laws without fear of repercussion.
More technically, a diplomat can get away with nearly anything so long as that diplomat’s host country does not waive their diplomatic immunity.
Yes, that includes homicide. In fact, Libyan diplomats left the country without hassle or search after killing a London police officer in 1984. Embassy staffers weren’t even subject to bag searches on their way out of Heathrow Airport. To this day, nobody has been charged. Certainly diplomatic immunity isn’t the only way to get away with murder, but history shows it’s not the worst way to go about it, unless of course Riggs and Murtaugh are on the case:
All of this is to say that the New York Police Department could not compel payment of any parking fines with legal threats, which sets the stage for our story.
In 2002, New York was pretty sick of diplomats parking like jerks because they couldn’t be bothered to find legal spots. At the time, they still issued parking tickets to diplomatic and consular-plated vehicles, but they couldn’t actually get them to pay the fines.
So they did the most New York thing in history. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, hey morons, I don’t care about your fancy immunity. This here is New York, so we’ll tow you anyway. His actual words were a bit—but not much—softer, according to a New York Times article from the time:
“We’ve tried to work with these countries, we’ve called them, and they just keep saying the heck with you,’’ Mr. Bloomberg said on his weekly call-in radio program on WABC. “Well, O.K., that’s fine, but when you come to see your car next Friday it’s going to be in a city pound and not in the street.’’
This may seem like a small issue for the city, but the amount owed to the city was truly staggering. At the time, according to the article in The Times, one nation alone owed more than $2 million. A USA Today report from 2007 says that nearly $18 million worth of fines had accrued by 2002, proving that diplomats certainly were taking advantage of their parking un-restrictions.
But the Mayor said it wasn’t even mostly about the money. He argued, according to The Times, that parking regulations exist for a reason:
“It isn’t even the money that’s the issue,’’ Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s that these cars block access to emergency-service vehicles and it’s annoying to our people who pay taxes. Everybody should follow the rules.’’
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t resolve the situation. While diplomatic immunity does not technically prevent the local authorities from impounding a vehicle, using such a tactic to force payment could be construed as an infringement of the concept.
To make sure this spat didn’t become an international incident, the State Department stepped in. On July 28, 2003, the State Department launched the Parking Program for Diplomatic Vehicles. That program specifically targets New York, but a State Department spokesperson confirmed to Jalopnik that a similar program exists for Washington D.C., with a few details changed, but we weren’t able to locate a text of the bill.
The full text of the New York-centric program, at least, is available and worth a read. The gist is that the program establishes a variety of “incentives” to encourage payment of future parking tickets. As of this program’s initiation, if you’re a diplomat and you don’t make use of the new “Diplomatic Parking Review Panel” to contest a parking violation, there are repercussions if you don’t pay your fines.
If you fail to pay three citations for more than 100 days, the State Department—which issues all diplomatic and consular plates—will not renew the registration on your vehicle, as long as it is not the last remaining vehicle for the diplomatic mission. Furthermore, the mission will not be able to register new vehicles on diplomatic tags until the parking violations on the original one are paid.
Not only will they not renew the registration, they’ll also confiscate the license plates of the offending vehicle. But if they can’t be issued tickets or arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle, that doesn’t seem like much of an enforcement mechanism.
We reached out to the State Department to clarify how this system works, and a spokesperson said the following in an email:
[T]he vehicle may be issued a violation for expired registration, and the owner is required to pay or contest such violations. Failure to pay could result in further actions by the local jurisdiction, which must be satisfied by the mission member.
It’s unclear what compels the diplomat to then respond properly to the new violations, but there is an additional punishment laid out in the parking program. It not only institutes the registration penalties, but officially authorizes the NYPD to tow diplomatic vehicles when:
(a) it is parked illegally in a manner that presents a hazard to health and safety;
(b) the vehicle’s registration has not been renewed or was not issued;
(c) the vehicle’s license plates have been recalled by the Department of State because the vehicle is not properly registered or insured;
(d) the vehicle’s registrant is no longer properly accredited or the registrant’s diplomatic duties have been terminated;
(e) the vehicle displays lost or stolen license plates; or
(f) the U.S. Department of State has authorized the towing of such vehicle after inquiry from the City.
So, if the diplomat wants to avoid further towing by the city, paying up would be wise. And while we, again, don’t have the full rundown on the D.C. program, the State Department confirmed that it similarly handles parking violations against diplomatic vehicles for the District and that registration-based punishments are doled out for offenders.
Since these procedures were enacted, the scourge of illegal parking by diplomats has mostly disappeared. (At least, it has in New York. This was never a very public talking point in D.C. compared to “hey screw you” New York. It could be that D.C. policing is that much better at coordinating with foreign diplomats, or just that these arguments in the capital were just being carried out in a more private, away-from-the-media setting.) But while the actual problem is gone, headaches linger.
When the State Department put this program in place, it imposed the new punishments for citations issued after the introduction of the new rules. While there is a program in place to encourage payment of earlier fines, it’s mostly toothless.
Instead, the State Department simply withholds 110 percent of the money owed to both New York and Washington D.C. from the foreign aid of the offending country. That’s certainly an incentive to pay up, but outstanding debts linger.
As of 2011, Reuters reports that New York was still owed $16.7 million, most of which was incurred before 2002. Egypt, the worst offender, still had a $1.9 million tab to settle.
For the city of New York, this is an irritating arrangement. The money is withheld from the countries, so the fines are being paid, but the money saved by the State Department doesn’t actually go to the city. Instead, it stays in the State Department’s budget and the city gets stiffed.
At this point, it’s unlikely that money will ever get back to New York. It’s been decades and countries aren’t looking for excuses to cut a check to a city that lobbied hard for the right to tow their diplomats’ vehicles.
Still, the program has been effective at ending the rampant abuse of immunity that clogged city streets. Though diplomats can rob a bank at gunpoint without a legal hurdle, they better make sure their getaway driver isn’t parked in front of a fire hydrant. It can get you out of a lot of trouble, but immunity can’t protect you from an NYPD tow truck.