View Our Practice Areas

A "Zone of Death" in Yellowstone National Park?

It's true: Yellowstone National Park has a 50 square mile parcel of land located in Idaho where someone could get away with murder. This situation has not occurred, but the fact that a zone of deaths is real should raise a few eyebrows.

Let's say two campers - John and Bob - get into a scuffle in the "Zone of Death" area, and John kills Bob. The District Court of Wyoming has jurisdiction over all of Yellowstone National Park, including the Idaho and Montana portions.

So, John has committed a crime in the District of Wyoming, the only district court that includes lands in multiple states. Under the Sixth Amendment, he can invoke the right to a trial by a jury of his peers - in this case, those residing in the Idaho portion of the Wyoming District Court.

Here's the loophole: nobody lives there. And there's no constitutional provision for a trial by a jury of buffalo. So a jury cannot be formed and John would walk away a free man.

The zone of death is quite a shocking loophole. Perhaps even more troubling is that Congress has known about it and has not fixed it. The issue first received prominence by Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt in his 2005 Georgetown Law Journal article, "The Perfect Crime."

In the years following the article's publication, Kalt gained traction on persuading Congress to come up with a fix. But it is now nine years since his article was published and nothing has been accomplished.

Congress could fix the Zone of Death by simply amending certain sections of title 28 of the United States Code. What does the Idaho congressional delegation have to say?

Suzanne Wrasse, press secretary for Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), said in a report that the Senator was not overly concerned and that the existence of the Zone of Death shouldn't stop the state [of Idaho] from prosecution, as they have dual jurisdiction in the area. However, professor Kalt takes issue with that analysis.

Kalt notes that the U.S. code states: "The Yellowstone National Park, as its boundaries now are defined, or as they may be hereafter defined or extended, shall be under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States." And that, today, is the District of Wyoming.

This might sound a little too farfetched to believe. But in 2007, a different, albeit less exciting, case brought up the issue of the Zone of Death loophole. Michael Belderrain illegally shot an elk in Montana in 2005, and cited Kalt's article as a defense in 2007.

Belderrain was standing in Yellowstone when he pulled the trigger, and then dragged the elk to his truck parked in Yellowstone. Belderrain was indicted in the Wyoming District, and objected that he had a right be tried by jurors from Montana - which is actually possible, as the Montana portion of Yellowstone is (sparsely) inhabited by people.

Instead of trying to call a jury in such a loosely populated portion of Montana and making an argument for why the Sixth Amendment did not entitle Belderrain to such a trial, the court dismissed the argument, supposedly because it would imply Yellowstone contained a Zone of Death loophole.

Ultimately, Belderrain took a plea deal and the issue was left unresolved. For now, the loophole remains for Kalt's imagined "perfect crime," with the perpetrator potentially walking away freely. 

No Comments

Leave a comment
Comment Information
Email Us For A Response

Contact Our Firm

Bold labels are required.

Contact Information

The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.


Privacy Policy

Office Location:
41700 West Six Mile Road, Suite 101
Northville, MI 48168

Toll Free: 888-674-1189
Toll Free: 800-693-4800
Phone: 248-468-4536
Fax: 248-380-3434
Map & Directions

  • Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Ann Arbor -2020