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Bad Boundary Lines and the “Zone of Death”

Boundaries are important.

With real estate law, unclear or uncertain boundaries whether in a legal description in a deed or because of erroneous markers or monuments in the ground, often lead to lawsuits.  Perhaps the most complex situations involve boundary line disputes where there is a “no man’s land” between the two adjoining property owners.  This is usually the result of bad legal descriptions in both the adjoining property owners’ deeds.

But in Idaho, or more specifically one small, 50 square mile section of Yellowstone National Park in the State  of Idaho, not paying attention to boundary lines and poor drafting of statutes created what has been referred to as the “Zone of Death.”  The Zone of Death was first identified in an article entitled “The Perfect Crime” by Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt.  (Kalt, 2005).

In his 14 page article, Prof. Kalt explains that Congress left the exclusive jurisdiction of Yellowstone National Park to the U.S. District Court for Wyoming.  However, under the Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, an accused is entitled to a jury composed of people from the state where the crime was committed, and under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the accused is entitled to be tried by jurors from the Federal district court where the crime was committed. The problem with the Zone of Death is that the U.S. District Court for Wyoming has jurisdiction over all of Yellowstone, even the parts of the park in Montana and Idaho.

Why is this important? Assume a person commits a murder in the 50 square mile portion of Yellowstone in Idaho.  Under the U.S. Constitution, the accused has the right to a jury composed entirely of people living in both Idaho and the U.S. District Court for Wyoming which would be people living in the Idaho part of Yellowstone. However, there is no one residing in the Idaho part of Yellowstone. Prof. Kalb argues that since a jury cannot be formed, the accused walks free (there are between 40-50 people that actually live inside Yellowstone in Montana, so a jury could be seated in Montana).

So, how do we fix the problem?  In a boundary line case, we go to court, and the court decides who the “no man’s land” actually belongs to.  But in the Zone of Death, if a jury cannot be seated, then how could a court ever decide?  The answer lies with Congress, and Congress must address the problem.  It’s a relative easy fix.  Congress would just split the portions of Yellowstone in Idaho and Montana to the Federal district courts in those respective states, but this easy fix is hampered by two problems. First, it puts the Idaho portion of the park in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the rest of the park in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  This would open the door for radical environmentalists to challenge every park management decision that could impact the Idaho zone in a circuit deemed more favorable to radical environmental issues.  Second, Congress is just too busy with other things than to address a theoretical issue.

Okay, has anyone ever tested the theory in court?  Well, actually yes, it has been tested in court.  In December 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk in the Montana section of Yellowstone.  He was indicted in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, but he moved to dismiss the case citing Prof. Kalb’s article and arguing that he should be tried by jurors residing in the Montana portion of Yellowstone (there actually are such persons).  But the issue never got past that stage as the court dismissed the argument out of hand because it would imply that Yellowstone actually does contain a Zone of Death.  Also, the hunter was offered and took a plea deal which prohibited him from appealing the jurisdictional issue. So, the issue remains unadjudicated.

So, boundaries are important regardless of whether they are in the Zone of Death in Yellowstone National Park or between two adjoining pastures in rural Alabama.  To read more about the Zone of Death, check out the following sources or read the fictional book Free Fire about a murderer in the zone. See (Baynham, 2016), (Morton, 2007), (Matthews, 2014), and (Box, 2008).  For more information on boundary lines and other legal issues in the State of Alabama, contact the Law Offices of Thomas J. Skinner, IV, LLC, at 205-802-2545.

Works Cited
Baynham, J. (2016, August 4). There’s a Section of Yellowstone Where You Can Get Away with Murder. Retrieved September 1, 2016, from VICE

Box, C. (2008). Free Fire. G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  Available on Amazon.com

Kalt, B. C. (2005). The Perfect Crime. Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 93(No. 2), 14. Retrieved September 1, 2016

Matthews, D. (2014, December 19). Yellowstone has a 50 square mile “Zone of Death” where you can get away with murder. Retrieved September 1, 2016

Morton, T. (2007, August 26). The perfect place for the perfect crime? Casper Star Tribune, p. 1.