Can You Commit a Felony in Idaho's Portion of Yellowstone and Not Face Charges?

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Feb. 22 2014 7:24 AM

Can You Commit a Felony in Idaho's Portion of Yellowstone and Not Face Charges?

According to this paper, due to the wording of the Sixth Amendment, someone can commit a felony in this area and get away with it. Is this true?

This question originally appeared on Quora.


Answer by David Raynor, startup attorney:

I love this article. I've been puzzling over this one for some years: What sort of crime could you commit entirely within the 50 square miles of the Idaho portion of Yellowstone?

The problem posed by the author is this: Yellowstone National Park is federal land, and as a result, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is mostly in the state of Wyoming, but small sections fall within Montana and Idaho. The federal judicial district of Wyoming covers all of Yellowstone, including the Montana and Idaho portions.

The "vicinage clause" of the Sixth Amendment requires that juries in federal criminal trials be drawn from both the state and the district in which the crime was committed. So, if you commit a crime in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone, you are in the state of Idaho and the district of Wyoming. The only area that is both in the state of Idaho and the district of Wyoming is that 50-mile patch of Yellowstone that is in Idaho. And since no one actually lives in that 50-mile patch, prosecutors would not be able to empanel a jury that lives in both the state and district in which the crime was committed. The argument is that since no jury could be empaneled, you could not be tried and would have to be allowed to go free.

So is it true? Certainly the state of the law is true. But is it true that if you did commit a crime there you would get off scot-free because no jury could be empaneled? The answer is that no one could say for certain. It's impossible to tell what a court would do in such a circumstance because there is absolutely no precedent.

First, it's tough to imagine what sort of crime could be committed entirely within a remote and uninhabited 50-square-mile area of Yellowstone. Remember it would have to be committed entirely within that area, so no buying guns or computers somewhere else and then bringing them in, and no conspiring with someone else outside the area. Also, you could still be prosecuted for crimes with maximum sentences of less than six months, for which juries are not required.

The difficulty of even imagining this scenario is exactly why we don't know the answer: There has never been a case to test the theory. No one is going to go and test it by deliberately committing a crime and then facing six-month penalties for any misdemeanor penalties that could be established (and possibly much longer if the courts rule against them on the vicinage issue). As for actual criminals, they are not looking for dumb reasons to try to commit a crime entirely within a small area of Yellowstone.

Finally, if you did in fact try it out, my guess is that the courts would do a bit of fancy footwork and find a reason to empanel a jury anyway. They will argue that the purpose of the vicinage clause is to give juries a panel of locals, not to allow people to escape prosecution by legal arbitrage. The lack of precedent here cuts both ways: Judges can easily carve out an exception for whatever facts are presented in this particular matter because such exception would only apply to the narrow circumstances of that case.

Good luck to you in planning the perfect crime!

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