The Yellowstone loophole

Thanks to a loophole in United States law, it may be possible to murder someone in a small section of Yellowstone National Park and get away with it.

Yellowstone National Park from Yellowstone NP, USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park in the world. It’s one of the jewels of North America, full of forests, geysers, waterfalls, bears, elk, bison, and tourists. It’s also in a rather funny place, legally speaking. All of Yellowstone is under the legal jurisdiction of Wyoming’s federal district court. That makes sense, because most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming. However, the westernmost and northernmost strips of the park actually cross over into the neighbouring states: Montana in the north and northwest and Idaho in the southwest. And that, as it turns out, might be a problem.

That Wyoming court has exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed in the park. But the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution has this to say:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed

Sixth Amendment

This “Vicinage Clause” means that people must be tried by a local jury, “of the State and district.” In 2005, law professor Brian C. Kalt pointed out that this presented a unique challenge in the case of Yellowstone National Park. If someone committed a crime in the Idaho part of Yellowstone, the jury by constitutional law could only come from the Idaho part of Yellowstone.

Why such a limited pool? Well, the hypothetical crime would be committed in Idaho, so that Vicinage Clause means the jury had to come from Idaho. But Yellowstone’s district is Wyoming, so the jury would have to come from Wyoming too. The only place that fulfils both criteria is that strip of land within Yellowstone and also within Idaho. And (this is the kicker) that little strip doesn’t have enough people to form a jury!

Kalt called it the Zone of Death. Someone could theoretically get away with murder because no jury could be legally impanelled to try them. Kalt actually tried to get this deadly loophole closed before his article was published, but was met with complete judicial indifference. But then his hypothetical legal conundrum became real.

It wasn’t murder in Idaho Yellowstone, but elk-murder in Montana Yellowstone. A man poached an elk in Montana’s portion of Yellowstone National Park, and tried to use Kalt’s loophole as his defence. The judge… well, he got around the loophole by ignoring it:

For practical purposes, any cause of action occurring within Yellowstone National Park, whether in Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana, must result in a jury trial in the District of Wyoming, and jurors selected from a pool of Wyoming citizens. To adopt a different position would create a virtual no man’s land. Since there is no case law that states otherwise, this Court must dismiss Defendant’s objection to a Wyoming jury panel.

Tabloid Constitutionalism: How a Bill Doesn’t Become a Law

Now, this is just a bad ruling and the court knew it. A lack of precedent either way is no reason to dismiss an argument. The elk poacher could easily have appealed this decision. Instead, he accepted a plea bargain on the condition that he did not appeal the loophole ruling part. That leaves this fascinating legal loophole unfortunately untested… at least for now.

(End note: this is not a good way to get away with murder. I have absolutely no doubt that the US courts would find a way to prosecute any actual national park murderers.)

[Thanks to Gareth E.]

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