Last week, State Rep Colin Nash, a Democrat from Boise, introduced a measure asking the Congress to change the federal district court jurisdiction for the roughly 50-mile portion of the park in Idaho where presently a theory holds that people can commit crimes with impunity.
That’s right — there is a small portion of Yellowstone where legal experts believe it could be impossible to prosecute crimes.
Here’s why. Yellowstone, one of the country’s most beloved national parks, is mainly located in Wyoming, but also stretches into Montana and Idaho. It is all federal land, and all crimes in the park are prosecuted by the federal government.
Back in 2005, Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt discovered that the entirety of the park, including the portions in Idaho and Montana, is in the jurisdiction of the District Court of Wyoming.
The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution states that a person has a right to an impartial jury of “the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” — and since no one lives in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone, Mr Kalt theorised, no jury could ever be impaneled there.
That means, in theory, no one could be prosecuted for violating the law there.
In practice, Mr Kalt said, his finding has not made a world of difference. There has not been a single major crime reported in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone since he published his paper in 2005, and just one in Montana, over the illegal killing of an elk.
But recent notable disappearances near Yellowstone, including that of Gabby Petito, the young woman allegedly killed by her boyfriend Brian Laundrie near Grand Teton National Park, caught the attention of people across the world.
One of those was Mr Nash, who read Mr Kalt’s article on Yellowstone in law school.
“Every time there’s a high profile disappearance in that area — and there’s been a few in the last two years — it’s just always in the back of my mind that there’s this legal positing that would make it difficult to seat a constitutionally legitimate jury to try a person who committed a crime in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone,” Mr Nash said.
The Idaho House passed the memorial on a voice vote, and Mr Nash said that none of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, have registered any complaint with his proposal.
“There were a couple of joking nays [during the voice vote], people who expressed interest in exploiting the loophole for themselves, but other than that, people just find it interesting to hear about,” Mr Nash said.
The memorial will be taken up by a to-be-determined Senate committee in the coming weeks and could advance to a vote of the full Senate shortly thereafter. Mr Nash said that he believes it does not require gubernatorial approval.
In addition to the recent disappearances, a range of art, including television and books, has increased the situation’s profile. Something similar to the Idaho “Zone of Death” was featured in the hit Paramount Network show Yellowstone, while a 2020 TikTok explaining the zone racked up millions of views.
“People are very interested in true crime podcasts and stuff, and so every time one of these happens, it sort of grows and grows,” Mr Kalt said. “There have also been more appearances of it in fiction.”
Mr Kalt noted that the last time there was significant movement on the issue was back in 2007 shortly after the release of the bestselling thriller Free Fire by C.J. Box, in which the protagonist investigator hunts a mass murderer in Yellowstone.
The book got the attention of the late Idaho US Senator Mike Enzi, who inquired with the US Department of Justice about potentially changing the lines. They declined to, Mr Kalt said, for “tangential, unrelated reasons.”
Now, some 15 years later, the Idaho portion of Yellowstone is in the news again.