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I think I am missing something about this case (particularly the criminal case), because I don't understand the current situation and legally/politically, how it got there and where it's at.

My current understanding is:

  • There was a question whether or not diplomatic immunity exists for her ("AS"). Whether or not fully resolved, that one doesn't seem to be an issue at the moment so I'm not focusing on it.
  • There was a civil claim in the US, which is valid in law to litigate, and is currently still in progress? Or has that been dropped to not prejudice a criminal case?
  • It's not clear if extradition would be an option, given how motor offenses differ in their legal handling, and the asymmetry of the US-UK extradition treaty, and if it's been requested or not, and if so where that's at.
  • The UK courts can (like any court) try someone in absentia, but tend not to, and the fact there is some kind of trial, suggests that their ability to enforce participation and any sentencing, now feels confirmed.

But .....

  • While Trump was clear he would not allow extradition, it sounds like the political or justice dept mood has changed, or something's been agreed settled, so there is now some kind of UK-US consensus that law enforcement jurisdiction, legal action and enforcement of process, is possible in one or both countries. But what changed?
  • Is it now a settled matter that AS is voluntarily or by operation of law, to face the UK criminal justice system in trial? Again, what happened politically/legally to lead to that?
  • It seems odd that someone would be at trial if they weren't exposed to a court's sentencing power. And, if so exposed, it seems odd the court would choose a virtual attendance for a defendant not an in-person one. That more than anything confuses me. Why virtual, in this case? What does it signify?

So I don't really understand the current status quo and what it signifies, and I can't find a clear explanation online.

I * think * this is more general politics than law SE, but if it's more law, I'll repost there.

2 Answers 2

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Preliminary points

Diplomatic immunity

There is some question as to whether Anne Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity at the time of the incident. However, the UK's foreign office has said that she did, and theirs is effectively the last word on the matter. Courts do not typically question foreign ministries on matters of international relations.

However, diplomatic immunity is only perpetual for official acts. Her immunity ended when she left the UK, which is why the prosecution could proceed.

US civil claim

In general, the existence of a criminal trial doesn't cause a civil claim to be dropped. This case is not still in progress, however, because the parties reached a settlement. See for example Harry Dunn family reach deal in US civil claim against Anne Sacoolas from the Guardian.

Extradition

The US has ruled out extradition in this case. From the previously linked article:

In December 2019 she was charged with causing the 19-year-old’s death by dangerous driving, but she refused to return to the UK to face trial and the US government refused to grant an extradition request in January last year. This year Biden’s administration maintained that the decision was final.

Trial "in absentia" (actually by video link)

This is covered ably in James K's answer.

Enforced participation and sentencing

In fact, it seems that there is no enforcement, but rather voluntary submission on the part of Anne Sacoolas, as shown in the rest of this answer.

Bulleted questions

  • While Trump was clear he would not allow extradition, it sounds like the political or justice dept mood has changed, or something's been agreed settled, so there is now some kind of UK-US consensus that law enforcement jurisdiction, legal action and enforcement of process, is possible in one or both countries. But what changed?

Possibly the abovementioned settlement, whose terms have not to my knowledge been disclosed. Among the terms of that settlement may have been an agreement on the part of Anne Sacoolas to submit to the jurisdiction of the British court in the criminal prosecution. Regardless, the option was always on the table for her to submit voluntarily to the court's jurisdiction, and perhaps she is truly doing it of her own free will. Or perhaps she is doing it on the secret instructions of the US government -- she is after all reported to be a (former) CIA agent -- in order to put the diplomatic conflict to rest.

  • Is it now a settled matter that AS is voluntarily or by operation of law, to face the UK criminal justice system in trial? Again, what happened politically/legally to lead to that?

Well she has pleaded guilty, so yes, her submission to the UK criminal justice system is settled; the verdict has been reached, and all that remains is for a sentence to be imposed. From the New York Post's article US diplomat’s wife Anne Sacoolas pleads guilty to death of Harry Dunn:

She was told by the judge that she had shown remorse by an early plea of guilt and by taking part in the court process, which she could not be compelled to do.

What happened legally is that she consented to be tried remotely. What happened politically is a matter of conjecture.

  • It seems odd that someone would be at trial if they weren't exposed to a courts sentencing power. And, if so exposed, it seems odd the court would choose a virtual attendance for a defendant not an in-person one. That more than anything confuses me. Why virtual, in this case? What does it signify?

At this point I believe she has three options: (1) attend the sentencing in the UK (assuming she's given leave to enter) and risk being imprisoned, (2) remain in the US -- that is, not submit herself fully to the court's sentencing power -- and risk a harsher sentence, which then increases the likelihood of being sentenced to serve prison time, leading to (2a) return to the UK to serve her sentence, or (2b) avoid going to the UK.

Since she voluntarily submitted to the trial, it probably makes more sense to voluntarily submit to the court's jurisdiction by attending the sentencing.

Some articles have said that the judge ordered her to appear in person for the sentencing, but a more detailed account suggests that this isn't true. Rather, according to this account, the judge has strongly implied that appearing in person will lead to a lighter sentence because it is a more sincere showing of remorse. From the Guardian article Anne Sacoolas pleads guilty to causing death of Harry Dunn:

Mrs Justice Bobbie Cheema-Grubb told Sacoolas at the end of a brief hearing at the Old Bailey that there was nothing to stop her from attending a sentencing hearing during the week commencing on 28 November.

“The personal attendance and voluntary surrender to the court of Mrs Sacoolas would provide weighty evidence indeed of genuine remorse,” said the judge, who added that the offence carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, although she noted the range of sentencing guidelines is from a medium-sized community order to three years’ custody.

Postscript

I say "assuming she's given leave to enter" above because, despite the judge having said that there's nothing to stop her from attending her sentencing hearing, there might in fact be something. The immigration rules (9.4.1(c)) require refusal of leave to enter if the applicant:

has committed a criminal offence, or offences, which caused serious harm.

I would assume that there should be some exception that would apply in this case, but I couldn't find it. Since it's probably, uh, rare for criminal defendants to enter the UK voluntarily to attend their own trials, it may have been overlooked. And while I found a provision that allows the Home Secretary to make individual orders to refuse leave to enter, I did not see a corresponding provision to allow individual orders to grant leave to enter. If I were Anne Sacoolas or her lawyer, I would seek to clarify this before planning to go to the sentencing hearing.

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  • This was tremendously helpful to understand it. Thank you for drawing out the details. It did not occur to me that the civil case might potentially contain terms of that kind,or that there might be a political or employment necessity, or that diplomatic immunity might not be perpetual. You've made very clear she is not protected by immunity and rather, its the case that for reasons not made public, she has volunteered and consented to subject herself to UK process despite not having legal necessity to do so, nor UK ability to compel, and the possible reasons that could be the case.
    – Stilez
    Oct 22 at 16:46
  • @Stilez my pleasure. There are other possibilities for an incident like this, it might be worthwhile to note. The US can always waive immunity, of course, or it could have agreed to allow the UK to pursue extradition after AS left. This kind of resolution probably requires the suspect to have fallen seriously out of grace with the home country, and the nature of the countries' relationship will be relevant, too. Another possibility is that the ex-diplomat becomes a permanent fugitive from the prosecuting country and can never travel there nor to any country that would extradite.
    – phoog
    Oct 22 at 18:01
  • @Stilez the last possibility might be part of the decision to submit to the court's jurisdiction. As far as I'm aware, nobody has said anything publicly about her motivation. I suppose we've all seen or read spy movies or books, so we can imagine that she may be working with the US government to arrange a resolution that suits its political and diplomatic ends, or they may have cut her loose, leaving her to fend for herself, or she might truly be acting out of conscience. I recall from early reports that she left on advice or instructions of the US, maybe she'd've stayed had it been up to her.
    – phoog
    Oct 22 at 18:10
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The missing factor is COVID. That caused a change in the Law that allowed for the defendant to appear on a video link. Before COVID that would not have been possible.

Trials in absentia are really not part of the English legal system.

Generally, while the prosecutor had agreed to the Videolink, the Judge was not very happy with it, and the first thing that the Judge did after the guilty plea was order the defendant to appear in person.

The reason for proceeding in this manner seems to be the wishes of the family, who described the guilty verdict as "fulfilling the promise they had made to Harry", and being more important than the punishment.

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  • Thank you. But why did she/they agree at all? Did something else happen, that led to a settled understanding by all of the family, the defendant, and both governments/justice systems, that meant it was settled that one way or another she would almost certainly have to return to the UK and face a UK court? So that it was better to plead guilty and do it rather than fight extradition or double down, or something? How did that come about?
    – Stilez
    Oct 21 at 9:02
  • "typically 3-5 years imprisonment for this offence": it seems that there was something of a plea bargain, as she was originally charged with causing death by dangerous driving and she pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. I don't know the sentencing guidelines for the dangerous driving charge, but I presume they're more stringent.
    – phoog
    Oct 21 at 11:37
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    @phoog - Offences committed before 28 June 2022: (minimum) disqualification of 2 years with compulsory extended re-test, (maximum) 14 years’ custody. For offences on or after that date: (minimum) disqualification of 5 years with compulsory extended re-test (maximum) life imprisonment. Oct 21 at 13:47
  • @phoog - this one I do understand. UK criminal procedure is different than US. Plea bargain US style doesnt exist and prosecutors may not bring charges they don't believe justified and appropriate to the offence, of excessive charges to coerce a lighter guilty plea. What will have happened is they believe she could be liable for the more serious offence and surely guilty of the lighter one, so both were charged and the court (or jury) decides which one (or both) she is guilty of. If both, then typically the more serious is the one that governs sentencing. ......
    – Stilez
    Oct 22 at 16:34
  • In this case she pleaded guilty to the lesser one and what's likely to have happened is that, in light of that plea, the prosecution assessed that either it was not in the public interest to proceed with a full trial, just to escalate from that to the more serious offence, or assessed that, while surely guilty of one of the two charges (and hence worth throwing both options at the jury to decide), it was not so certain they could make a strong enough case for the serious charge by itself to justify a trial for that one alone. This happens quite often if a case could possibly....
    – Stilez
    Oct 22 at 16:38

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