A beige station wagon bearing diplomatic license plates caught Kathleen T. Perkins' eye as it made a U-turn at 22nd and R Streets NW. A moment later, the car double-parked illegally beneath a "no parking" sign across from the Israeli Embassy.
Five pink parking tickets were already attached to the station wagon's windshield.
Mrs. Perkins, an ardent critic of diplomatic privillege, pointed to the illegally parked Israeli Embassy auto to underscore what she and many others view as an ever-widening problem. Despite international accords, congressional scrutiny, State Department anlysis and neighborhood outrage, no way has yet been found to make foreign diplomats obey Washington's parking laws.
"It's rudeness and arrogance and contempt for other people," Mrs. Perkins complained a few days ago during a stroll along R and 22nd Streets. "Now watch," she said, as the Israeli Embassy station wagon neared the intersection. "He's a steady.
Tens of thousands of parking tickets are ignored every year by employees of numerous embassies and other diplomatic missions here. Soviet, Israely and Peruvian embassy employees appear to have amassed more unpaid parking tickets than other diplomatic staffers in recent years, adding to a controversy that has continued for more than a decade, according to city government records.
Now, however, the mounting tallies of unpaid diplomatic parking tickets - combined with other driving offenses by diplomatic employees including a few serious traffic accidents - are spurring renewed government efforts to grapple with the ancient and perplexing issue of diplomatic immunity. It has long been a troublesome matter in the Washington area, where about 2,000 senior diplomats, almost 4,000 lower-ranking embassy employees and their approximately 15,000 family members largely share a specially protected status.
Momentum is building in Congress for legislation to restrict the number of diplomatic employees sheilded by diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits. Several Senate and House members are also sponsoring bills to require embassy employees to carry auto liability insurance.
The State Department is backing legislation to narrow the scope of diplomatic immunity for lower-ranking embassy staff members and is also studying a possible plan of its own to provide no-fault insurance coverage for diplomatic employees.
The D.C. City Council has called for a crackdown missions. In the Kalorama and Sheridan Circle neighboorhoods where many diplomatic missions are located, community groups, including Mrs. Perkins' Citizens' Committee on Diplomatic Immunity, are also pressing for government action.
There are hints, however, of a possible reversal in the long upward trend in diplomatic parking violations. Both the Soviet and Israeli Embassies - which together account for about half the unpaid parking tickets received by diplomatic missions - are scheduled to move to new locations with adequate garages in coming years.
In addition, recently announced plans by the D.C. government to "decriminalize" parking violations may put increased pressure on some diplomatic employees to obey the city's parking regulations. If parking violations are decriminalized and if Congress restricts diplomatic immunity for lowerechelon embassy employees, some officials say, thousands of diplomatic staffers could be required to pay their parking tickets.
According to an extensive tabulation of parking violations by diplomatic employees compiled by Mrs. Perkins, the Israeli Embassy ranks second. During a seven-month period last year, the Israeli Embassy and its employees ignored 2,503 parking tickets. Their unpaid parking fines, Mrs. Perkins calculated, amounted to $19,995.
The Soviet Embassy, as it has since the 1960s, ranked first, running up a total of $101,930 in unpaid fines on 8,435 parking tickets during the seven months. The Peruvian Embassy was third, with $7,230 in fines on 664 tickets.
In all, Mrs. Perkins found, diplomatic employees ignored 22,004 parking tickets and $235,490 in fines in Washington from April through October of last year. Mrs. Perkins tabulation, moreover, is only a partial reflection of the problem because it omitted parking tickets issued to diplomatic cars with Virginia and Maryland license plates.
Though its accuracy has not been officially confirmed, Mrs. Perkins' tabulatin is apparently the most thorough to be compiled in recent years, and it appears to parallel separate, though less complete, tabulations made by The Washington Post and The Washington Star in 1975 and 1976.No official government tabulation has been provided since the 1960s.
Mrs. Perkins is not alone in being irked by illegally parked cars with diplomatic license plates. Among those who share her views is Robert D. Heine Jr., a retired Marint Corps colonel and national security affairs reporter fr the Detroit News. He says he ia annoyed at finding parking tickets issued to diplomatic vehicles Crumpled in the gutters near his home, at 2400 California St. NW.
Within a few recent months, Heini picked a dozen such discarded parking tickets from the streets while walking his dog. "These things are tangible evidence of comtempt for local law on the part of the recipient," Heini said. His private driveway has been blocked again and again by illegally parked diplomatic cars, Heini added. He must then call the police to help him get his own car out.
Such complaints are echoed by the Kalorama Citizens Association and the Sheridan-Kalorama Neighborhood, Council. "We've got to have some stronger control over these embassy people," asserts William H.G. FitzGerald, president of the Sheridan-kalorama group.
In this long-running controversy, the embassies have traditionally raised a number of points in their defense. Officials of the Soviet, Israeli and Peruvian Embassies - the leading diplomatic nonpayers of parking fines - say that all three embassies have inadequate reserved parking space and that commercial parking lots are inconvenient for their employees.
The Soviet Embassy, in additions, has a special parking deal with the State Department. Under what the State Department describes as a unique, unwrittern and long-standing "mutual understanding," Soviet Embassy employees are allowed to violate D.C. regulations by parking on 16th Street NW between L Street and Scott Circle.
The D.C. government was apparently not a party to this understanding - and, as a result, city police still ticket Soviet autos on 16the Street NW, where the bulk of the Soviet Embassy's parking violations apparently occurs.
"Nobody's going to tell me not to enforce the (parking) regulations over there," a senior D.C. police official recently assrted.
The Soviet U.S. understanding, official say, assured parking privileges for American diplomats near the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Though the Soviet Union does have parking regulations, it has o such legal instrument as a parking ticket.
Similarly, Aviezer Pamer, press spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here, described the embassy's nonpayment of its parking fines in Washington as justified by the Israeli government's tolerance of parking violations by American diplomats in Israel, "There is reciprocity here," he said. Although the State Department says it has no official parking agreement with Israel, American diplomats and Israeli officials in Israel recently confirmed that American diplomats are allowed to ignore parking fines in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Peruvian Embassy officials offered a similar justification for nonpayment of parking fines here, saying that police in Peru normally do not give parking tickets to foreign diplomats and that, when they do, the fines need not be paid.
Indeed, U.S. government controls over parking by diplomatic employees here are circumscribed by a number of arcane agreements and interpretations of international law, like the U.S.-Soviet understanding. Another of these diplomatic constructions is kited by U.S, officials to explain an apparent reversal of the State Department's 1960s policy of threatening to deny diplomatic license plates for vehicles with unpaid parking tickets.
In 1964, when parking violations by diplomatic employees were considerably fewer than today, the State Depatment announced such a threat. The pay-up campaign apparently resulted in an initial drop in parking violations by diplomatic employees and a few temporary delays in insurance of diplomatic plates later in the 1960s.
Now, however, the State Department's threat has gone by the boards. The State Department has subsequently interpreted an international convention, adopted by the United States in 1972, as prohibiting it from denying license plates to diplomatic employees.
Much thornier questions are posed by speeding and other traffic offenses by diplomatic employees. Local officials, like Maryland motor vehicles administrator Ejner J. Johnson, say they are worried because they cannot get speeders off the roads if they are protected by diplomatic immunity. Accident victims sometimes receive no financial compensation if a diplomatic employee is at fault.
Among the most widely cited of such incidents in Washington in recent years was a 1974 collision in which Dr. Halla Brown, a George Washington University professor of medicine, was left permanently paralyzed from the neck down. A cultural attache for the Panamanian Embassy, who according to police report apparently was at fault in the accident, was later recalled. No compensation was over paid, and Dr. Brown's enormous medical bills were largely covered by her own insurance policies.
In another widely noted auto accident, a 19-year-old Virginia highway repairman was killed in Arlington last year when he was struck by a car driven by a Senegalese Embassy chauffeur. An Arlington judge later set aside the driver's claim to diplomatic immunity, pointing out in part that the chauffeur had subsequently been fired by the embassy and that the accident occurred outside the scope of his job. The driver was tried for unvoluntary manslaughter and acquitted.
These two accidents have been cited in Congress by Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.) and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), who are both pressing for legislative curbs on diplomatic immunity. Fisher already has 77 cosponsors on one bill. Other congressional backers of similar measures include Sen. William D. Hathaway (D-Main) and two House members from New York - where the United Nations headquarter has also caused a parking controversy - EdwardI. Koch and Stephen J. Solarz, both Democrats.