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N.Y. to tow cars of diplomats who flout city’s parking laws

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NEW YORK — The Giuliani administration announced Monday that it would soon begin towing the cars of some diplomats who flout the city's parking laws and ignore the tickets they are issued, a move that drew immediate criticism from the U.S. State Department.

The program, which begins Aug. 1, is intended to address the problem of illegal parking by diplomats, which the city contends creates congestion, safety problems and disrespect for the law.

According to city statistics, New York is owed $21.3 million on outstanding tickets issued to vehicles registered to diplomats between 1997 and 2000. But the city has long refrained from towing the cars out of respect for diplomatic immunity.

The State Department reacted with a sternly worded statement: "Any actions undertaken by the city that might conflict with our international treaty obligations must be avoided."

Diplomats said they were surprised and described the administration's tactic as an overreaction to an acknowledged problem that is diminishing.

The policy would affect only about 500 cars driven by people assigned to the approximately 100 consular offices in New York City. An additional 2,000 diplomats who are assigned to their countries' missions to the United Nations would not be affected.

Administration officials said they believed the city had the right to seize the cars of scofflaws assigned to consular staffs; after consulting with city lawyers, they decided the consular staffs have a lesser form of diplomatic immunity.

City officials said Deputy Commissioner Bradford Billet, the mayor's liaison to the diplomatic corps, had briefed the State Department on the city's plan.

Asked if the State Department had signed off on the policy, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, "The State Department never signs off on plans like that."

"They always get real nervous," he said, "whenever we try to get the consulates to abide by basic quality-of-life standards that you would think they would want to abide by."

The city's decision was criticized by the consul general of Australia, Michael Baume, who until last month was president of the Society of Foreign Consuls. He said the society had been attempting to negotiate a solution with the city.

Baume said consular staffs, in particular, had shown greater compliance with parking laws, and he noted that Russian consular officials had recently rented garage space. Under its policy, the city will only seize vehicles that owe more than $230 on outstanding tickets, which is equal to the maximum fines that can be imposed for two parking violations, including penalties and surcharges. Cars that are not redeemed by diplomats will be sold at auction, as are those of other violators. Only tickets issued since July 1999 will count toward the total.