California residents may be aware that the staff of foreign embassies and consulates are protected from prosecution for all but the most serious crimes by diplomatic immunity. However, they may not know that this privilege may also extend to shield diplomats from liability in civil actions, such as homeowners association disputes. The concept of diplomatic immunity dates back to ancient times, and it has been recognized in the United States since the late 18th century.
While diplomatic immunity may be a blanket term, not all diplomats and consular staff enjoy equal levels of protection. Senior diplomatic figures may receive high levels of immunity, but junior staff may only be protected in specific situations and while conducting business on behalf of their governments. Diplomatic license plates reveal the level of immunity that has been granted to the vehicle's registered owner, but that does not mean that the individual behind the wheel enjoys the same protection.
This means that determining the level of immunity that has been granted is crucial before initiating civil litigation against embassy staff. If a lawsuit is filed against a junior consulate worker who was not conducting official business at the time of the incident in question, it may be allowed to proceed. However, HOAs will likely find it difficult to pursue civil remedies when properties have been used to host official functions.
Attorneys with experience in HOA disputes may suggest that diplomats and embassy staff be asked to reveal their level of immunity before entering into property purchase or lease agreements, and they could recommend that additional security be collected from individuals who would be difficult or impossible to pursue in the courts. This request would likely withstand judicial scrutiny because diplomats are not members of a protected class under the nation's discrimination laws.