The United States should be sensitive to abuses of diplomatic immunity in such cases. In Washington 22 years ago, the No. 2 official of the Republic of Georgia’s embassy struck and killed a Maryland teenager while driving drunk through downtown. Police initially released him from custody because of his diplomatic status, but the Clinton administration asked Georgia to waive the rules that ordinarily shield embassy personnel from prosecution in U.S. courts. Georgia complied — and the official pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other charges, receiving a sentence of seven to 21 years in prison. He served three years before being transferred home and released.
Details of the current case are far different, to be sure. There is no claim that the motorist — identified by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Anne Sacoolas, wife of a government employee at a U.S. air base in England — was drunk, or that the victim, Harry Dunn, died as the result of anything other than an unintentional act. While riding a motorcycle, Dunn was struck head-on by a car using the wrong lane, an all-too-frequent mistake by foreigners unaccustomed to Britain’s left-side driving rules. The driver apparently cooperated with police to some extent before leaving the country. Yet the British still seek a formal in-custody interview with Ms. Sacoolas, so as to complete their investigation.
It’s unclear what level of immunity the U.S. Embassy in London applied. The Georgian official, Gueorgui Makharadze, was entitled to a blanket exemption from any charges because of his high official status. Lower-ranking officials generally enjoy functional immunity, which applies only to conduct related to their work. U.S. officials must of course avoid setting any precedents that might unduly hamper the legitimate prerogatives of those who work for the government under often difficult circumstances overseas. A State Department statement notes that it “rarely” waives immunity. In previous cases, U.S. government personnel accused of causing deaths overseas escaped prosecution under diplomatic immunity, notably a contractor in Pakistan in 2011 and a military attache in 2018. Pakistan’s dysfunctional criminal-justice system probably influenced U.S. thinking in those cases.
British justice, however, is transparent. U.S. citizens can expect fair treatment there. At the very least, the Trump administration owes Britain a full and persuasive explanation of the decision to let the person allegedly responsible for Dunn’s death to leave before British authorities had finished their investigation. If there isn’t one, the administration should send her back.