Legal Murder? The Oddity of the Yellowstone Zone of Death

by burkejaskot on March 29, 2016

Yellowstone National Park is a beautiful nature preserve that is protected by the government to maintain the wilderness.  The park actually spans four states: Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.  Unfortunately, the jurisdiction of the park is murky and difficult to parse out for the legal matters that arise in the park.  When four states are involved, it can be tricky to figure out which state is responsible for prosecuting the perpetrator of the crime.

How is the jurisdiction of Yellowstone administered?

The jurisdiction issues have led to the so-called “Zone of Death” in Yellowstone.  About 50 square miles of the park are located in Utah.  Unfortunately, there are no people living on that land, although there are people who live in Yellowstone in Montana.  None of the four states involved nor the federal government wants to take responsibility for those 50 square miles in Utah.  Wyoming is officially responsible for crimes committed in the park, even when they are committed in other states.  However, this does not override the constitutional rights of the accused to be tried in the state of the crime.  This situation does fall under a federal jurisdiction, but getting a crime, particularly murder properly tried when the crime takes place in this area is difficult.  It is a tale of bureaucracy, government apathy, and incredulous experts who can’t understand why laws are not passed to prevent this area from becoming a potential haven for crime.

Constitutional rights of those committing crime in Yellowstone

If someone murdered someone else in the Zone of Death, they could easily surrender themselves to police and use legal wrangling to get out of the charge.  First, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution allows for the defense to demand that the trial take place in the state in which the crime was committed.  It also allows for jurors to be taken from the congressional district of the crime.  Not only does Utah lack jurisdiction over the case, but there is no one living in that 50-mile zone that could act as a jury.  Due to the inability of the court to uphold the constitution, the defendant should go free.  In some cases, the argument was simply thrown out of court in the case of elk poaching, despite the legal strictures against it.

Response of legislature

Mostly, the state legislatures have responded by ignoring the situation.  Those who are in charge don’t believe that anyone would exploit this loophole or believe that it would be thrown out of court.  In fact, one defendant who did commit a crime in the Zone of Death attempted this defense, and the judge would not allow it.  It didn’t matter that it would violate constitutional rights.  The judge just refused to consider it as an argument.

Congress has not been helpful, either.  They scoff at those who think this is a problem.  Some politicians take it into account and promise to look into the matter, but the issue still remains.  It is hard to understand why those in charge are so ablaze about the situation.  The representatives for those states feel there are more pressing issues or don’t think that it is a serious problem that would result in rampant murders.  If violent crimes were to occur in the Zone of Death with more regularity, than those in charge are more likely to take action.  For now, though, this loophole is open to anyone who dares to try getting away with it.


Author bio: Lynda Lampert is an affiliate of Blackford & Flohr, a Maryland Criminal Defense law firm.




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