MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So this week we're talking about what an international cosmopolitan place the D.C. region is. And one of the reasons there's so much global flavor here is just about every country from across the globe has an embassy in the District. And in every one of those embassies there are a couple of dozen, maybe even a couple hundred, diplomats.
MR. ROB SACHS
Most of whom drive cars. Now, the state department says there are almost 9,000 diplomats in the D.C. area who are licensed to drive here.
But those licenses are different from the kind you and I would get at the DMV.
Right. And it's been said that these licenses allow you to drive any speed you want and park in any spot you want and you'll never get a ticket.
Like, diplomatic immunity.
Right. But the question is, Rebecca, is that actually true?
And that is such a good question, Rob. I tell you what, this is a great question to put to WAMU transportation reporter, David Schultz. As part of our weekly segment, "From A to B."
MR. DAVID SCHULTZ
Hi, Rebecca. Hi, Rob.
So, David, what's the deal? Can diplomats actually get away with anything they want?
No, no. They definitely can't. That's not true.
So you're saying they have to follow the law, just like the rest of us?
Well, not exactly. I think we better clear up exactly what diplomatic immunity is all about. So countries have agreed to give diplomats immunity from prosecution or law suits to protect them from trumped up charges of espionage or things like that. It's kind of a quid pro quo type of thing. If you don't hassle our diplomats, we won't hassle yours.
Okay. But what does that mean for law enforcement on the local level?
And what does that mean specifically for things like speeding and double parking?
Well, it's funny you mention that. I had the very same questions so I got in touch with Hilton Burton. He's the commander of the D.C. Police department's special operations division.
MR. HILTON BURTON
All diplomats in the District of Columbia are subject to being pulled over and stopped by the police for violation of our traffic laws. They're also subject to being issued notices of infraction for any violation of the parking laws.
Okay. So diplomats can get pulled over and they can get traffic tickets?
Yes. But while diplomats can get traffic tickets, the police department can't do anything to make them pay the tickets.
All right, David. So let me get this straight. Some guy with a diplomatic license plate, he can park in the middle of Connecticut Avenue during rush hour and he won't get towed by the police; is that right?
That's right. Those cars are considered property of a foreign country. So the cops can issue them a ticket, but that's about all they can do.
We can't impound them. We can't search them. We can't impede them in any way other than conducting a traffic stop. You can't arrest a diplomat and we can't search their vehicles. Just like we couldn't search an embassy if there was a crime that occurred there.
So Burton says some officers are reluctant to even pull over a car with diplomatic plates for fear of starting an international incident.
Yeah, wow, indeed. But there are some, shall we say, complications.
Yeah, so if a diplomat racks up too many unpaid tickets, then the state department can get involved. Now, they can revoke the diplomat's driver's license or, in really extreme circumstances, they can expel the diplomat from the U.S.
Okay, I'll say it again, wow.
Yeah. But the thing is, most diplomats know they're visitors in the U.S. and they want to represent their respective countries in the best possible light. So I wanted to find out more about this so I dropped in on some of the diplomats down on Embassy Row. And Enrique Ramirez with the embassy of Paraguay says he follows all the local laws when he's on the road.
MR. ENRIQUE RAMIREZ
I consider being allowed to drive here in the U.S. a privilege and we have to respect the rules like everybody else.
Not all diplomats feel that way. I also spoke with another diplomat from a country in central Africa. Now, this diplomat didn't want us to say his name or the country he's from for fear of damaging relations with the U.S. He says in his country, diplomats never get traffic tickets so it's unfair that he gets ticketed here in D.C.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1
Driving in D.C. is good, but the problem is ticket with diplomats. There is no consideration of our status.
I see. So it sounds like it differs depending on A, the country and B, the diplomat?
Yeah, that's right. Take Ben Kangwa here. He's with the embassy of Zambia. Kangwa says occasional traffic tickets are but a tiny price to pay for the pleasure of living in the U.S. capital.
MR. BEN KANGWA
I love driving in D.C. When I came in 2007, I would get lost here and there, but, you know, now I'm used to it. I just enjoy being in D.C.
And David Schultz, we so much enjoy you being here with us each week for your transportation segment, "From A to B." Thanks for stopping by.
It's my pleasure. Thanks, Rob. Thanks, Rebecca.
Thanks, David. That was WAMU's transportation reporter, David Schultz, talking about diplomatic drivers here in D.C.
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