By Habib Olapade
Habib Olapade is a first-year law student at Yale University.
The perfect crime has preoccupied man’s mind for eons. Clytemnestra secretly slayed her husband, Agamemnon, with nary a scintilla of contrition. Othello privately smothered Desdemona in her uneasy slumber. And Massachusetts-native Lizzy Borden became an American pariah after she slaughtered her father and stepmother with an axe. These tales are as popular as they are gruesome. The United States Code, however, contains an unknown but interesting natural parks statute that is more sensational than any of these tragedies. It involves a careful mélange of forestry and forgotten constitutional commands.
The Constitution imposes requirements on where a criminal jury trial can be held and the places where the government can draw jurors from. Article III § 2 states that the trial must take place in the state where the crime was committed.  The Sixth Amendment goes even further and declares that the jury must be drawn from the state and judicial district where the crime was committed.  What happens, though, when a crime is committed in a place that is inside the boundary of one state and the government can only procure jurors from judicial districts outside the state?
A thin sliver of land in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park fits this hypothetical. Nine percent of the Park is actually in Montana and Idaho.  According to the latest census, this portion of the reserve is uninhabited.  Yellowstone was created in 1872 before Congress admitted Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming into the union.  Each state, however, transferred its authority over Yellowstone to the federal government upon obtaining statehood – which means that only federal criminal statutes can be enforced in the reserve.  When Congress established a federal district court in Wyoming, the incorporating statute purported to give the court territorial jurisdiction over the entire Yellowstone area.  This means that if someone were to commit a federal crime in the Idaho (or Montana) Yellowstone area, she would have to be tried in Idaho (or Montana) because of Article III § 2. However, the government would be unable to gather jurors for the case because the Idaho and Montana portions, the exclusive area from which the government can recruit jurors, are unpopulated. The result? Our criminal receives a free walk.
Don’t go on a crime spree just yet, though. There are other ways the federal government could hand you your just deserts. Some arguments are more persuasive than others, however. First, Congress could redraw the Wyoming district following public exposure of the loophole. It is questionable, though, whether this correction would allow prosecutors to pursue an offender who acted before the relevant changes were made because such a move would violate the constitution’s prohibition on retroactive punishment.  Indeed, two federal circuit courts have confirmed this observation.  Second, the federal government could argue that the Montana and Idaho park area is a federal enclave like the District of Columbia. This argument would make the Sixth Amendment restrictions on where the government can draw jurors inapplicable because the amendment’s reference to “states” would be beside the point. It is clear, though, that the Montana and Idaho park areas are still a part of Montana and Idaho respectively. Indeed, a federal statute explicitly states that some parts of “Yellowstone National Park [are] situated in Montana and Idaho.”  This argument falls flat as a result.
Third, the government might be able to charge you with an offense with multiple elements. For instance, if one conspires with her friend in California before committing the crime in the park, she has committed part of the offense in a state where jurors can be drawn.  The government could also try someone with a petty crime that carries a maximum sentence of less than six months in prison – The Supreme Court has held that these crimes do not require a jury trial.  Finally, assuming the government did not give chase, the victim’s family could sue the criminal in tort for wrongful death. In short, there are several ways to botch the job but thanks in part to poor congressional drafting and historical accidents the possibility of a perfect crime is still on the table. Needless to say, this brief foray into criminal law is not a call to illicit action.
 U.S. Const. Art. III § 2.
 U.S. Const. Amend. VI.
 16 U.S.C. § 21.
 Supra note 3.
 16 U.S.C. § 24.
 28 U.S.C. § 131.
 U.S. Const. Art. I § 10.
 United States v. Louwsma, 970 F.2d 797 (11th Cir. 1992). Zicarelli v. Dietz, 633 F.2d 312 (3rd Cir. 1980).
 28 U.S.C. § 131 (2000).
 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (1948).
 Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888).
Photo Credit: Yellowstone National Park
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