Diplomatic immunity is a legal immunity applied to diplomats in their host countries, ensuring that they cannot be arrested or criminally prosecuted for any violations of local law. If an ambassador, high ranking diplomat, or member of a diplomatic mission is arrested, and he claims diplomatic immunity, the police call a special hotline setup by the State Department to verify his status. If the arrestee’s status is confirmed, then the police must let him go, regardless of the severity of the crime.

The sole punishment that can be leveled against him is immediate deportation, which only the State Department can order. Deportation is usually only prescribed for the most heinous of crimes, such as rape or murder.

However, the privilege belongs not to the diplomat himself, but to his home country. Thus, the federal government can, and often does, ask the home country to waive the immunity if the crime is serious. If the home country agrees, the immunity vanishes, and the diplomat can be arrested, tried, and punished for the crime. Such a waiver is by no means automatic, however, and it is often very difficult to prosecute any diplomatic agent, especially if the home country is not on good terms with the U.S.

Can a Diplomat Be Tried in His Own Country for a Crime Committed Here?

If the immunity is not waived by the diplomatic agent’s home country, and the diplomat must be released. The diplomat is still under the jurisdiction of the laws of his country, so if his action is a crime in his homeland, he can be prosecuted when he returns. Although it is the responsibility of the diplomat’s nation to carry out eventual criminal and civil procedures against him, this is often neglected outside of the major world powers. This makes pursuing criminal or civil penalties very difficult.

Who Does the Diplomatic Immunity Apply To?

There are three officially recognized varieties of diplomatic posts: an embassy, a consulate, and a mission (sometimes called a delegation). Within the diplomatic post are various positions that all claim different levels of immunity, depending on the rank of the official. An ambassador is granted full immunity from arrest, prosecution, or even testifying as a witness because they are the highest ranking member of the diplomatic staff.

What If I am the Victim of a Crime Committed by a Diplomat?

Full immunity from prosecution is a privilege granted to only a few of the highest ranking ambassadorial staff. Just because someone claims they are a diplomat, or even works at a Consulate or Embassy, this does not automatically make them immune to prosecution.  You should call the police at once, and they can find out whether immunity applies to the perpetrator.  

Even if immunity does apply, diplomats are representatives of their nations, and many of them will not want to excuse an embarrassing or heinous crime committed on their behalf. If the crime is serious enough, and the perpetrator is from a nation that has good ties with the US, there is a decent chance that his immunity will be waived.

Can I Sue a Diplomat?

If the person you are trying to sue is a bona fide diplomat, than he is only subject to civil proceedings in a limited number of circumstances:

  1. Lawsuits concerning real estate within the U.S.,
  2. Lawsuits concerning an action relating to a will or inheritance, in which the diplomatic agent is involved as executor or heir,
  3. Lawsuits relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the U.S. outside his official functions.

Therefore, if a diplomatic agent was acting outside of his duties when he breached a contract or did whatever act you want to sue him for, or if it is in regards to property or a will, you can sue him. However, it is notoriously difficult to collect judgments against diplomatic defendants, as shown by the over $18,000,000 worth of parking tickets owed by foreign diplomats in New York City. 

If you are going to proceed against such odds, it will be an uphill battle all the way, so it is essential that you retain the services of a government lawyer experienced in international law. Then you can find out exactly what you are up against, what remedies you may have, and whether it will be worth the cost of pursuing.