I 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.
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.”
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.