D.C. Transportation Department officials announced yesterday that many foreign embassy employes who formerly enjoyed diplomatic immunity from the city's parking regulations will face full prosecution for parking infractions after Jan. 29.
In addition, the department said that even high ranking diplomats -- those who still have immunity, including ambasadors -- can expect to have their cars towed away if they block traffic or cause a safety hazard, said Frederic Caponiti deputy administrator of the city's new parking bureau. But these diplomats will not have to pay the city's new $50 towing fine.
U.S. State Department officials, concerned about possible reprisals by foreign governments against American embassies overseas because of the city's tough new policy, reacted cautiously yesterday.
"We are seeking an approach in which local law will be enforced without the functioning of diplomatic missions being impeded," a spokesman said.
Traffic enforcement against embassy personnel has become a major issue here since a federal law limiting civil and criminal immunity for many embassy employes and their families went into effect Jan. 1.
State Department protocol officials had voiced fears of retaliation during several recent meetings with traffic officials.
Caponiti said the new policy was hammered out after these discussions and others with city lawyers and Douglas Schneider, head of the city's Transportation Department.
Under the new policy, the 13,000 embassy personnel who will now be subject to city parking laws -- laws that many of them have disregarded for years -- "will be treated like every other citizen," Caponiti said.
"They'll be towed, 'booted' or fined like anybody else," he said. A "boot" is a metal device attached to a car's front tire to immobilize it until the owner pays outstanding parking tickets.
Foreign embassy personnel will be subject to the city's parking laws now not only because of the new federal Diplomatic Relations Act limiting immunity but also because of the city's plan to "decriminalize" parking violations.
Starting Jan. 29, parking infractions in the District will carry civil, not criminal, penalities, and violators will face civilian hearing officers instead of D.C. Superior Court judges to contest parking tickets.
A lower ranking employe will be excused from fines only if the fines are incurred while the employe was performing an "official act" for his embassy, Caponiti said. High ranking officials will be immune from all fines, even if their cars are towed.
As for a lower level employe, an embassy official with diplomatic status will be required to write the city and give "sufficient evidence" to show that the employe was performing an authorized act before the fine will be dropped, he said.
Caponiti added that the department will accept no form letters from embassies, but instead require individualized letters with specific explanations in each case.
In the past, foreign embassy officials have complained that the lack of adequate parking space around their buildings forced their employes to park illegally.
"We feel we have received very poor treatment showing us as violators," said one diplomat during a meeting held last month by State Department officials to explain the new federal law and the city's parking program to foreign emissaries. "There is an obvious problem with the parking facilities."
"We have very little parking space," an official from the Cameroons explained after the meeting."We're located on Massachusetts Avenue (NW), one of the main arteries.
"The D.C. government says we can't park before 9:30 a.m. or after 4. Our embassy is open from 9 to 5. In addition, we have three parking spaces for nine diplomatic officers... There is a crisis of parking spaces in this city," he said.