Crime Writer Boot Camp: Jurisdiction

www.suecoletta.com/crime-writer-boot-camp-jurisdictionI have a real treat for you. As I’ve mentioned before, Officer X is an avid reader of crime fiction. As crime writers, we need to make our stories ring true for everyone, but especially for those who work in the field of law enforcement. So, he’s generously offered to discuss a major red flag he’s noticed in the books he’s read–and he’s read hundreds, if not thousands, of detective stories!

Note: In order to properly teach jurisdiction to crime writers he’s doing a series on this issue.

Ready to immerse yourself in the world of law enforcement? Crime Writer Boot Camp is now open. Let’s do this.

What’s your jurisdiction, officer?

In the world of mystery and police procedural novels, is your detective operating within their jurisdiction? How do you overcome a jurisdictional problem for your detective?  Let me help.

Jurisdiction is one of the most common areas I find authors have a tendency to get wrong. This is where the reader finds the FBI Agent conducting a murder investigation in downtown Los Angeles, or the City Cop investigates a dead body found at a scenic national park. For a cop, federal agent, lawyer, or people who work within the court system, this is a “what the hell?” moment. To us, it’s like seeing a beautiful white tablecloth with a huge red wine stain in the middle. Very distracting.

What’s wrong with those scenarios?

Everything is wrong with those scenarios. Neither agency has any business investigating a crime where they’re located in these instances. They are both out of their jurisdiction. As a law enforcement officer, jurisdiction is the first thing you learn. You can’t make a case if you don’t have jurisdiction. 

My hope is to give authors some tools to help overcome jurisdictional issues so they don’t shoehorn their characters into situations that wouldn’t fit in reality.

Jurisdictions

In the United States there are two types of jurisdictions: subject matter jurisdiction and territorial jurisdiction. Then, of course, there are two levels of jurisdiction: federal jurisdiction and state jurisdiction. Writers should become familiar with the types and levels of jurisdictions.

(To the cops out there: if you’re reading this, yes there’s also Military and Tribal jurisdictions, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole and complicate this.)

Since this can be a little hard to consume in one sitting, I will break down the differences over a couple of posts. Today, let’s focus on the subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction means certain agencies only enforce specific statutes involving specific areas.

Subject matter jurisdiction involves specific crimes over which a specific law enforcement agency has authority. Legislators write statutes, which in turn can create a specific area of regulations/laws within that statute and an agency to oversee those regulations/laws. The statute also provides the authority to a particular agency to deal with the statutes prohibitions (aka crimes) over which that agency has jurisdiction.

A good example of a federal subject matter jurisdiction agency would be the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigation (OCI). FDA OCI Special agents are given their authority through the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the Federal Anti-Tampering Act. These two statutes spell out their jurisdiction and authority to investigate, serve search warrants, carry firearms, and make arrests. FDA OCI Special Agents’ authority is limited in scope. They can’t arrest someone for carjacking or bank robbery. 

Laws a FDA OCI Special Agent can enforce must pertain to the two statutes listed earlier. An FDA OCI case in the news a few years ago involved a pharmacist selling counterfeit cancer drugs. The doctor was basically selling counterfeit medication in lieu of the actual chemo, and making a ton of money until he was arrested and received a long prison sentence.

Subject matter jurisdiction agencies also exist on the state level as well. An example could be a state liquor control agency (these do vary in authority from state to state so do your research).  We’ll look at Washington State Liquor Control (WSLC) Agents for this example.  WSLC Agents only have the power to enforce laws pertaining to specific state laws overseen by the Washington Liquor Control Board. So, for example, WSLC Agents enforce laws against people running illegal stills, bootlegging, and counterfeiting state liquor tax stamps, to name some of their duties. Therefore, a WSLC Agent would be out of his jurisdiction if he arrested a purse snatcher or car thief.

Why would I write about one of those kind of cops?

You might say, “Why not stay with the FBI Agent or city detective? After all, any good crime novel deals with murder.”

Well, for one, those stories may be over worked. Think about being a publisher and receiving fifty new book submissions and all are either a city detective or FBI agent solving a murder. How difficult would it be for your book to stand out?  (Note from Sue: This stabs at the heart of why we need a high concept. No one preaches this better than my friend and all-time favorite author, Larry Brooks, and this post drives his point home.)

Second, subject matter jurisdiction agencies work some really intriguing and complex cases that do include robberies and homicides.

Now, you may be thinking, “How is that possible? You just said they only work specific crimes.”

Yes, I did, but there is a magical word in the realm of law enforcement that bridges the jurisdictional gap. And that magical word is “Nexus.”

Nexus

A nexus is a tie, link, or connection of your subject matter jurisdiction investigator to the non-subject matter jurisdictional crimes, otherwise known as general crimes. As an author of mystery and detective fiction, the nexus is your gateway to overcoming jurisdictional issues. A nexus is the link your detectives need to cover most gaps in their authority.

Let’s take another look at the FDA OCI Special Agents mentioned earlier. Here’s the scenario: News breaks that there is a spike in the number of people dying from a normally easily-treated infection and the number of deaths has so far reached twelve.  Doctors discover there is something wrong with the “FDA” approved antibiotics purchased by the victims from the neighborhood pharmacy.  

FDA OCI Special Agents look into the antibiotics and, through their superior investigative skills, they learn the antibiotics are from a shipment of antibiotics stolen during a violent truck heist a year ago, at the seaport. The antibiotics, which have since expired, have been relabeled and sold to several local pharmacies. Now your FDA Special Agents with their subject matter jurisdiction just found a nexus into investigating a truck high-jacking crew as well as multiple homicides. That is the magic of nexus and the great thing about subject matter jurisdictions. 

In reality, an agency like the FBI, as well as local and state agencies, rely on subject matter jurisdiction agencies in helping them deal with these types of complex cases all the time.

What city detective understands the complexity laws pertaining to how the pharmaceutical industry works?

This is where your subject matter investigator steps in to save the day in a believable way. Because the hero now has a unique occupation, it may also be refreshing to a publisher and make your novel to stand out from the competition.

What about the FBI Agent investigating the murder in LA and the city cop investigating the body at the national park? 

That topic will be covered under the next post, which involves territorial jurisdiction, as well as how to use a nexus to bridge the jurisdictional gaps.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling, multi-published author in numerous anthologies and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue co-hosts the radio show "Partners In Crime" on Writestream Radio Network every third Tuesday of the month from 1 - 3 p.m. EDT/EST (see sidebar for details). She's also the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science, and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. 2017 Award-winner of Feedspot's Top 50 Crime Blogs (Murder Blog sits at #6), contact Sue for speaking engagements, book signings, reading, and events.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you both for a fabulous post. I’m really interested in the territorial jurisdiction because I just wrapped researching that for my Point Pleasant series of novels. Unraveling who has jurisdiction in certain regions (as well as related to certain crimes) can be a bit mind-boggling, especially when it comes down to how different agencies work together. It’s wonderful to have resources, and helpful posts like these to guide writers along the way. Thank you Sue and Officer X!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Catching up on Challenges (and cheating along the way) by Mae ClairMy Profile

  2. Hi Sue

    Just thought I’d let you know that when I went to ‘view this post on line’ an error message came up :- ‘error establishing a database connection’

  3. Great stuff today.

  4. Fascinating, as always!

    I just have one question: when you say, “[An FDA OCI Special agent] can’t arrest someone for carjacking or bank robbery,” surely you mean that they can’t investigate such a case, correct?

    However, if they happen to witness, say, a bank robbery, they wouldn’t throw their hands in the air and say, “oh well, not my jurisdiction, just let the appropriate agency deal with that,” right? They’d have the right to arrest the robbers.

    So, presumably there is a loophole there as well?
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…More Awkward Moments in Children’s BooksMy Profile

    • In response to your question, Nicholas. Here’s what Officer X said…

      Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

      Nope, they have no authority to arrest the bad guy in that scenario they are nothing more than an average citizen….however under the federal good samaritan statute they can intercede to save someone’s life. Now saying that you may or may not have qualified immunity depending on the mood (or interpretation) of the US Attorney’s Office, they may not represent you so you (the agent) end up being charged with a crime which in turn you end up loosing your home, savings, and pension defending yourself in court.

      A few years ago an ATF Agent in the US Virgin Islands interceded in a really violent domestic dispute. He was attacked by the assailant with a large flash light. The Agent shot the man protecting himself and the victim. (Legal council around the country briefed federal agents about the case and all agreed he acted within the good Samaritan statute but the USAO left the case up to the local jurisdiction) The Agent was arrested and put on trial for murder. The court case took a couple of years but he was exonerated under general rules of justifiable homicide.

      http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/atf-agent-trial-murder-us-virgin-islands/story?id=11012073

      So you have to way weigh the situation, the scope of the ATF Agent was to investigate gun crimes, he was not a peace officer and though there is a statute allowing federal agents to intercede in violent encounters, the US Attorney’s Office can decline to assist. So it come down to if you don’t have a nexus you’re likely on your own.

      There have been other cases before and since the ATF case so this case is not an anomaly. Almost all federal agents purchase their own professional liability insurance in case something like this happens.

  5. Hi Sue & Officer X!

    This is an important point about the fictional investigator having legal jurisdiction. Crime writers must be aware of this if they want to have credibility with knowledgeable, astute readers.

    Here’s a little jurisdictional trivia in the JFK Assassination.

    The murder occurred within the City of Dallas and violated the State of Texas penal code. The Dallas Police had sole jurisdiction of the investigation and, to their credit, had it solved within two hours, doing so without the help of any other agencies. (Sorry, conspiracy theorists. There’s not one piece of irrefutable ‘evidence’ that anyone other than Oswald was involved.)

    In 1963 there was no specific federal statute regarding assassinating the president. That’s changed now and it would automatically become federal jurisdiction and the FBI would handle it, regardless of where it occurred.

    Initially, the Dallas PD refused assistance from the FBI because they knew their jurisdictional limitation and were more than competant to investigate a murder – and that’s all the JFK assassination was to them – just another homicide with a firearm, however high-profile the victim was.

    But this jurisdictional thing got quirky when the Secret Service forceably removed (yes, you can say stole) JFK’s body from the State of Texas (without any jurisdictional right whatsoever) and took it back to DC for an autopsy. Capitalizing on a jurisdictional loophole of violating state lines, J. Edgar Hoover jumped in and had the FBI take the lead role. Within two days, Oswald the perp, was dead himself and the murder investigation turned into a federal commission of inquiry.

    Of course Oswald was never tried, but legal opinions over the years suggest that much of the evidence in the JFK case – autopsy, ballistics, examination of the limosine…. would not have been admissible due to lack of jurisdiction. How’s that for a plot!
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…HOW TO WRITE DEADLY CRIME FICTIONMy Profile

    • That’s a kickass plot! Wow, Garry. What a convoluted web of jurisdictional madness (bet you can’t say that three times fast). And you’ve just proved why YOU were the right guy to write JFK Assassination for Dummies (little plug for your upcoming book). Bravo, my friend!

  6. This is both fascinating and really important! Thanks, both! I can attest to this whole jurisdiction thing, too. In one of my stories, a murder is committed in a US national park. So I did some ‘homework’ and I found out that the National Park Service and its rangers have jurisdiction there. As you say, state authorities do, too, and I’ve done my best to represent that accurately. But I wouldn’t even have known about the original jurisdiction without some homework. Authors, get the facts!
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…Tradition*My Profile

    • You’re sharp, Margot. That’s a tricky one, too. Not all crime writers would know to research jurisdiction for a National State Park. I also spent hours researching to make my sheriff fit, have him investigate a murder spree in a small town. I wish I had Officer X then.

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