I visited the Yellowstone Zone of Death
– There’s a 50-square-mile area,
out in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park in the USA,
where it’s said that thanks to a legal loophole,
you can get away with murder.
Or any other crimes you might want to commit.
I’m just about to enter that area.
There is exactly one road that leads in and out
of the so-called Zone of Death.
And before I came here,
I talked to the person who discovered the Zone.
– My point in talking about it, whenever I do,
is not to encourage people to do this
or to say, oh, it’s great that people can get away with murder.
The point is, I think they should fix it.
– That’s Brian Kalt, the law professor who discovered the loophole in 2005,
and wrote a law journal article about it.
And yes, he was the one who nicknamed it “the Zone of Death”.
– Most accounts have important parts of it wrong.
There are a lot of limitations and a lot of caveats.
Technicalities really matter here.
– And I like technicalities.
So I’m going to explain this as fast as I can, stay with me.
First: if you commit a crime in the United States,
you can usually be prosecuted either by the state,
or by the federal government,
the one that’s in charge of the whole country.
But Yellowstone National Park is special: within its borders,
only the federal government can prosecute.
– Now, for federal law, Congress, the people in charge in Washington,
they divided the country into 94 districts.
Those districts don’t cross state lines.
So there’s a district for northern California, or eastern Texas,
or for all of Arizona because there aren’t many people there.
With one exception:
Congress gave all of Yellowstone Park to the federal district for Wyoming,
despite the fact that some small parts of the Park, like this,
are actually in the states of Idaho and Montana.
So right now, in this 50-square-mile area,
in the Zone of Death,
I’m standing in the state of Idaho, but the federal district for Wyoming.
Now, if you’re accused of a crime,
the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution
says that you have a right to a trial by jury,
where that jury is made up of people from the “state and district”
where the crime was committed.
The Constitution could have just said “state OR district”,
or it could’ve just said “district”,
but it doesn’t say that. It says “state AND district”.
So for crimes committed in this weird little overlap zone,
a jury would have to be picked from just the people
who live in Idaho state and Wyoming district,
which would be just the people who live in this zone.
And the population here is zero.
So no jury, which means no trial,
which means in theory, no conviction.
– Because Congress colored outside the lines here,
they would need to let you go.
To be clear, the prosecution wouldn’t just concede,
they would say, well, look, this is just a technicality.
The problem with that is:
the Sixth Amendment says very clearly and plainly what it requires.
In the federal system, the only one who can request a change of venue
is the defendant, and that’s not gonna happen.
– So this is not a place where “crime is legal”,
the law still applies here.
I’m not stupid enough to try and test it by committing a felony here.
Apologies if you thought I was that stupid,
I am on YouTube after all.
But if I did that, I would still be arrested,
I would still be put on trial.
Something like that has happened,
in the Montana portion of the Park north of here.
A few people do live in that section,
so it’s not literally impossible to put a jury together,
but there’s probably not enough people
to make up an impartial jury to the standards needed.
– There was this guy some years back who poached an elk.
The public defender said, well, look, the constitution says the jurors
have to be from the Montana portion of the park.
And the judge, he said, well, that’s what the sixth amendment says,
but if I followed that, then I’d have to let him go.
And I can’t just let him go.
I’m paraphrasing here, but there wasn’t any additional legal reasoning.
– The legal histories of almost every country
are littered with examples of people finding a way to bend the rules.
A judge can sometimes just decide to do things their way,
either for good or ill.
In that case in Montana, the judge did just that.
– Well, the prosecutors didn’t want him to appeal this.
They said, look, if you plead guilty,
we’ll let you get a reduced sentence,
but one of the conditions of this is:
you don’t appeal the Zone of Death issue.
And he took the deal.
– So there’s clearly some reason for lawmakers to worry about the Zone.
But if you were planning to do something terrible here,
you’d also have to make sure you committed only the one crime,
and only here, which it turns out is really difficult.
– There’s also the possibility of being prosecuted somewhere else.
For conspiracy, wire fraud, or firearms violations
or any of those things. And there’s also civil liability.
You could get sued for anything you might do there.
It would be very easy to fix.
All Congress has to do is pass a statute that says
“the district of Wyoming is Wyoming”.
They could do that in five minutes if they wanted to.
– I did ask the obvious question: has Professor Kalt ever visited here?
And he said, well, there’s this book
where the Zone of Death is part of the plot.
I actually bought a copy and was going to bring it out here,
it’s on my desk in my hotel room because I forgot it.
Anyway, they flew him out to the central parts of Yellowstone,
the parts that are actually in Wyoming,
the pretty bits,
to do some media interviews.
– Someone said, do you guys wanna go out to the Idaho portion for a photo op?
And I said, hell no.
I am not going to tempt the forces of irony like that.
– So let’s say the worst happens.
Someone comes out here, commits a crime in the zone.
As far as we know it’s never been done,
but what does Professor Kalt think would happen?
– The US attorney’s office in Wyoming is not just going to roll over.
But people are let go on technicalities from time to time,
and this one, at least, is actually in the Constitution in black and white.
Congress has been on notice for 18 years now. They could have fixed it.
– I am now going to leave,
either before someone else decides to commit a crime here, on me,
or before I get eaten alive by mosquitos.
Share This – I visited the Yellowstone Zone of Death