9 Shameless Abuses of Diplomatic Immunity

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iStock

Diplomatic immunity may be intended to keep diplomats from running afoul of local authorities while serving abroad, but some workers take it as a license to act like jerks. While the Vienna Conventions on International Relations of 1961 outline a series of safeguards that protect diplomats from being unfairly punished should tempers flare between their country and their host nations, more than a few diplomats have taken advantage of their privileges in an irritating way. Here are just a few annoying little liberties diplomats have taken.

1. PARK WHEREVER YOU WANT

The most common manifestation of this inconsiderate behavior involves diplomats' parking. Just ask New Yorkers; diplomats at the United Nations apparently view Manhattan as their private parking lot. Back in 1996, diplomats racked up 143,508 parking summons, which would have cost them $15.8 million if not for diplomatic immunity. Russia alone was responsible for 32,000 of those fines.

2. OR CLEAR A SPOT FOR YOURSELF

A few hundred thousand unpaid tickets look like downright responsible behavior when compared to former Afghan diplomat Shah Mohammad Dost's antics behind the wheel. In 1987, Dost was accused of intentionally running a woman over in order to get a parking spot during a trip to an air conditioner store in Queens. According to the victim, her boyfriend was backing into the spot when Dost rolled up and demanded they cede the space to him because he was an Afghan diplomat. When they refused, Dost threw his Lincoln into gear and ran the woman over, sending her to the hospital.

3. BECOME A DOGGIE DIPLOMAT

Here's a case where diplomatic immunity didn't work out quite as well as a diplomat had hoped. In 1975, a UN delegate from Barbados claimed that diplomatic immunity extended to his pooch, who had bitten several people. The delegate warned police officers of "possible international consequences" if they tried to contain the aggressive German shepherd. Nice try, but Fido's not exactly negotiating trade treaties.

A Mexican diplomat got the same rude awakening in 1984. Military attaché Enrique Flores was keeping a pack of 10 basset hounds at his Virginia home in violation of local zoning laws. Even though the laws stated that Flores could only have four hounds at once, he appealed to the State Department for diplomatic immunity. The State Department turned him down. Guess they're cat people.

4. LOSE YOUR IMMUNITY IN THE DIVORCE

In 1989, Mozambique's representative to the United Nations wanted to divorce his American wife, so he waived his diplomatic immunity in order to take the matter to court. Unfortunately for the diplomat, Antonio Fernandez, he didn't fare well in the case; he ended up losing the couple's $5 million estate in the decision. Whoops.

Fernandez didn't suffer from any shortage of gall, though. After losing the decision he attempted to invoke his diplomatic immunity privileges to keep from paying his ex-wife. Fernandez took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but in the end his former love got the couple's Greenwich, Connecticut, estate.

5. LIGHT UP ON A PLANE

In 2010, a Qatari diplomat ran into trouble on a Washington-to-Denver flight when he decided to have a smoke in the plane's lavatory. To make things worse, Mohammed Al-Madadi also made a joke that some passengers and flight personnel perceived to be a terrorist threat. Air marshals sounded various alarms, and in the end two F-16 fighter jets escorted the flight to its final destination. While diplomatic immunity kept Al-Madadi from being charged with any crimes, the Qatari government sent him home to help smooth things over.

6. STOP CUTTING YOUR LAWN

The residents of New Rochelle, New York, found themselves with a common problem in 2008: one house in the community had become a real eyesore. It sat vacant for years as weeds took over the yard, the paint began peeling, and the property slipped into an ugly state of decay. New Rochelle had a problem, though: the dilapidated house had a sort of diplomatic immunity that protected it from local ordinances. Somalia owned the house, which it occasionally used to house United Nations diplomats. Since the vacant house was exempt from taxes, the town couldn't use liens or other penalties to force the Somalians to do a little landscaping. The lesson here: if you want to stop mowing your lawn, join the Foreign Service.

7. STOP PAYING YOUR RENT

A word of advice to landlords out there: if diplomats want to rent one of your properties, you might want to get a hefty security deposit. Just ask some of Manhattan's biggest landlords. A 1996 New York Times story illustrated the difficulty of renting to diplomats; landlords really don't have any legal mechanism through which they can collect delinquent rent or evict diplomatic tenants. At the time the article was written, one West African country was over $20,000 behind in its rent checks for a pair of luxury apartments in midtown Manhattan.

If you or I pulled a stunt like that, we'd be out on the streets. But diplomats enjoy a special kind of immunity known as "inviolability," which states that the private residences of diplomats can't be entered by the host country's agents without the visiting country's consent. In short, the only way you can evict foreign diplomats is if their home nation gives you the thumbs-up first.

8. SLAUGHTER A SHEEP

Diplomatic behavior is not, apparently, a prerequisite for becoming a diplomat. In 1984, six Iranian diplomats caused a stink in London by taking a sheep from a house and cutting its throat in the street. The ritual public slaughter of an animal is generally frowned upon, but since the men had diplomatic immunity the British authorities were powerless to charge them with violating animal cruelty laws.

9. GIVE ILLEGAL SMUGGLING A TRY

He should have just paid that checked baggage fee. In March, a North Korean diplomat to Bangladesh was detained when he refused to let customs officials scan his carry-on at Dhaka’s airport. After more than four hours of arguing that his diplomatic immunity protected him from having to submit to security screenings, the diplomat finally assented – at which point, officials discovered approximately $1.4 million worth of illegal gold hidden in his bag. Though charges were never brought against the envoy to North Korea – which, due to financial sanctions, is restricted in its ability to transport money internationally – he was reportedly sent back home by his boss, ambassador Ri Song-hyon.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]