This week, Craig Ashton briefly tackled the recent blowup in diplomatic relations between Beverly Hills and the country of Qatar (pronounced “cutter”)…
Reckless Driving in Beverly Hills
Last Saturday in Beverly Hills, two sports cars were filmed racing up and down the streets around the 700 block of North Walden Avenue, which is a very upscale residential neighborhood. One car was a yellow 949 horsepower Ferrari LaFerrari, which has a starting price of more than $1.4 million (supposedly this particular model was worth $5 million), and the other was a white Porsche 911 GT3 (with only a mere 475 horsepower V6 and base price of a paltry $130,000). Apparently the cars had started racing one another in front of Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard, eventually ending up in the residential neighborhood.
As onlookers watched—and recorded—the cars repeatedly revved their engines, pealed out, flew around corners, side-wiped a car, and blew through stop signs, reputedly sometimes reaching speeds of more than 100 mph. The Ferrari at one point left a 30 foot long skid mark on the road.
The impromptu drag race only came to an end when the Ferrari apparently blew its engine, and the driver pulled it into a driveway, smoke boiling from the car. One witness who had been filming the scene approached the Ferrari’s driver to ask why they were racing and putting their neighbors in danger, and recorded the driver pushing him away and cursing him again. In an interview with local news, the witness stated that when he approached the again, the driver apparently had some choice words for him: “He said, verbatim, ‘I could kill you, and get away with it.’” As the driver told him to get off of the property, the witness stood on the sidewalk in front of the driver’s home and continued to engage him, telling the driver that he had a right to film from a public sidewalk, because “that’s how it work in America.” According to the witness, the driver then made a profane statement, threw a cigarette at him, and walked away.
And then it got stranger. Police showed up on the scene shortly thereafter, and were approached by a man who said that he owned the cars. He denied any wrongdoing, and told the police that he had diplomatic immunity because he was a representative of the country of Qatar. No arrests were made at the time, and the owner didn’t identify himself.
Craig’s Take on the Driver’s Defense of “Diplomatic Immunity”
After Craig summarized what had happened in the incident, he launched into a discussion of diplomatic immunity by bringing up a previous incident involving an ill-behaved visitor to the United States:
“There was an article that I read where somebody in Washington, D.C… someone from the Republic of Georgia was driving like an idiot… and killed a teenage girl, and they basically instituted diplomatic immunity.
“So what’s diplomatic immunity? …It was codified in the Vienna Convention in 1961, and says basically, when receiving diplomats who formally represent a sovereign or a country, the receiving head of the state grants certain privileges and immunities to assure that they may effectively carry out their duties. It used to be that the big countries had more rights than the smaller countries, but the Vienna Convention made, essentially, it all uniform, to say, ‘Look, if you’re in somebody else’s country, bottom line is you cannot be prosecuted by the laws of that country.’ Now, you can be prosecuted by the laws of your home country. You cannot as an individual waive immunity, because that is a sovereign country’s immunity, not yours. You just have the benefit from it. So you can’t waive it, personally. But, the country can waive it.
“So in the case of the diplomat from Georgia, with the pressure that was brought to bear by the United States government, Georgia waived diplomatic immunity for the individual, and they were prosecuted criminally, and then sued civilly.
“Essentially, if it were me, and somebody was killed and I was representing them, I would use the example of Libya. Right, so I don’t care if that person has immunity, I’m gonna sue the country. When Libya shot down the Lockerbie airplane and killed everybody on the plane. [Pan Am Flight 103 was a flight that Libyan terrorists blew up with a bomb while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.] And the dogged attorneys, for well over a decade, continued to pursue and continued to pursue, and finally, Libya—through Muammar Gaddafi—paid, and ultimately at least the civil issues pertaining to the imperfect remedy of money were taken care of, because they bypassed diplomatic immunity and went straight after the country of Libya, and then the leader of country.
“So, I would say, ‘Look… you put somebody in this country, and they have a history of driving like this, and you don’t pull them out, hey, they may have sovereign immunity, but we’re going to sue you, and use the full weight of the U.S. government to make that happen, and put some pressure. We can do it via trade, we can do it via sanctions, we can do it via basically freezing your assets, etc.’ So diplomatic immunity is a very broad immunity, that basically protects whoever’s here with diplomatic immunity from being prosecuted under the laws of the United States.
“The problem is, for these idiots from Qatar, allegedly, who were driving like idiots and then flicking cigarettes and saying ‘You know, you can’t touch me,’… well… there’s no embassy in L.A. So they may not be employees of [Qatar’s] embassy. They may be employees of the consulate. And if they’re consular employees, they only get immunity while they’re performing their job. So if this guy’s driving the Ferrari to deliver a visa to somebody because it’s going to expire in two minutes, then, at that point he can say, ‘Look, I’m doing my job, and therefore I cannot be prosecuted.” But if he works for the consulate, he doesn’t get immunity for driving like an idiot on the streets of Beverly Hills, and that particular person could be prosecuted… That’s the difference between consular immunity and diplomatic immunity.”
Follow-Up: And Things Only Get Stranger
The conversation on All Things Legal didn’t cover the latest developments in this case. After the City of Beverly Hills brought the matter to the attention of the State Department, cars’ owner was identified as Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani, who is part of Qatar’s royal family and owns a drag-racing team. Eventually, it was determined that Al Thani does not have diplomatic immunity. But by the time this was determined, it was discovered that Al Thani has apparently fled the country with his cars… and that’s where the matter stands at the minute