Crime Writer Boot Camp: Jurisdiction Part II

ROOKIESIf you’re just joining us, Officer X, my CI and friend, has been instructing us on how to properly use jurisdiction in our stories. He’ still on the job, which is why I’m protecting his identity. Getting our jurisdiction correct is crucial for crime writers. So roll up your sleeves and let’s dig in. Here we go…

What’s your jurisdiction, officer?

As was shown in the previous post, jurisdiction is an important factor of adding credibility to your story, for the readers (especially for those with a working knowledge of the criminal justice system). Previously, we discussed subject matter jurisdiction in which I explained how some agencies have specific jurisdiction over certain crimes and subjects. Today, we’ll go over territorial jurisdiction.

Territorial jurisdiction means the authority within a specific physical geographical location, as opposed to a particular crime or subject matter. There are three types of territorial jurisdiction within the US; exclusive, concurrent, and proprietary. This post will break down each jurisdiction and provide a quick example to assist authors with a general understanding of territorial jurisdiction. (Note: As always, authors should do their own specific research to add detail to their particular story.)

Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction

Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction is the least common of the three territorial jurisdictions. The US government maintains hundreds of thousands of buildings, facilities, hospitals, offices, as well as about 30% of all land within the boundaries of the United States, however, very few locations fall within the exclusive territorial jurisdiction.

Exclusive jurisdiction means the location is under exclusive federal jurisdiction and excluded from state and local laws within which the property is seated. Military bases and most Indian Reservations fall within exclusive territorial jurisdiction, as well as a few national parks. Like Yellow Stone Park, for example. Some other national security sensitive locations examples are:  the famed “Area 51” located near Groom Lake, Nevada, the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Let’s look at the CIA Headquarters in Langley since it’s often a topic of thrillers. 

An employee for the CIA is found dead in her office on the CIA campus. Now, does anyone think the Langley Virginia Police are just going to roll in and start stringing up crime scene tape, rummage through her office, and start interviewing her co-workers? No way. A crime within the CIA headquarters is clearly a federal issue. The business of the CIA is a sensitive national security matter, so the grounds are held within the sole jurisdiction of the federal government. Thus, state law stops at the perimeter.

Who investigates the potential murder of the CIA employee?

The FBI has jurisdiction of the general criminal statutes under Title 18 of the United States Code. In this case 18 USC 111, which is the statute covering murder of a person within federal jurisdiction. The FBI has jurisdiction of this murder in two ways:

  • The location is within an exclusive territorial jurisdiction, so they have geographical jurisdiction.
  • The murder of federal employees killed in the performance of their duties (anywhere) falls within the subject matter jurisdictional scope of the FBI.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]The FBI does not investigate homicides. Unless…[/tweetthis]

Concurrent Territorial Jurisdiction

Concurrent jurisdiction is fairly common within properties owned by the US Government. These properties may include some national parks, wildlife refuges, some federal building, etc.… Under concurrent territorial jurisdiction, the state and federal government have equal territorial jurisdiction over the same location. Which means, the laws run parallel to each other. If a federal officer catches someone committing a theft, homicide, or rape in a location with concurrent jurisdiction, the suspect can be prosecuted in federal court under existing federal statutes. Or if a state officer catches the suspect at the same location, the suspect can be prosecuted in the state court system under state statutes.

So let’s say Jeff Bob goes to the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri to walk the Carver Trail. A shot wrings out and Jeff Bob drops dead with a bullet in his chest. The George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri is under concurrent territorial jurisdiction. So when the Park Ranger responds, he begins his investigation as any city uniform cop would. Just like any patrol officer, the Ranger calls for homicide investigators, which could be both the National Park Service (NPS) Criminal Investigator and/or the Sheriff’s Office Homicide unit to respond. Both agencies will then decide who will to lead the investigation as they both have jurisdiction.

Note: In criminal matters where the federal government has jurisdiction, the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) has the right of first refusal. Right of first refusal means the USAO has to be briefed first about the case and then they make a decision if they want to prosecute the case or not. When they don’t want to prosecute (which is more often than not), the case is referred to the local courts.

Proprietary Territorial Jurisdiction

Most federal lands are actually proprietary territorial jurisdictions. Meaning, the US Government is the property owner. As with any other land owner, the states have general criminal jurisdiction over the location like they would a privately owned property. The difference between the US Government as land owner and a private land owner is the US Government, through the power of Congress, can create their own criminal statutes and agencies to protect their property, unlike a civilian land owner (the federal authority would fall to subject matter jurisdiction).

The Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service properties usually fall within proprietary jurisdiction. Both agencies employ enforcement officers who enforce select federal laws—subject matter laws—pertaining to the protection of the property while the state and local law enforcement agencies enforce general state criminal laws.

A murder taking place on most US Forest Service land would (in most instances) be investigated by local law enforcement and not the FBI or US Forest Service Criminal Investigators (yes, they have special agents as well).

The complications with some federal properties

Territorial jurisdiction of some federal properties can get really complicated. Some federal properties may contain all three types of territorial jurisdictions at one location (the jurisdictional map may resemble a checker board). This is usually due to how and when the land was acquired and how the boundaries have expanded by new land grants and purchases by the US Government. So, if you’re writing about a particular national park or a national forest as the back drop of your thriller, call the particular location’s public information officer and ask what kind of jurisdiction, or jurisdictions, they have.

Public information officers tend to be helpful. They can usually get you an answer in a reasonable amount of time. On the plus side, the jurisdictional issues of a location may also give your novel some complexity to keep the reader involved by providing some interesting details, characters, and additional tensions regarding jurisdictional authority.

Do States have a similar break down of territorial jurisdictions?

First you have to understand how the state criminal justice system works for the location you’re writing about. Because there are fifty states, you have fifty separate variations. Most states I know of have a county court system that oversees felonies cases, municipal court systems that have jurisdiction of most misdemeanor crimes, and civil violations within the boundaries of a city. You must look at how the various state, county, and municipal police agencies are granted their police powers through state statute.

Some states have stricter geographical jurisdictions than others. It is up to the author to know the area in which they are writing about. The best way to understand jurisdictional authority is to look up the statute definition of peace officer, police officer, and law enforcement officer in the state you’re writing about. You should look up all three to see which term is used in your specific state’s statutes. If you look at the State of New York, for example, their statutes have a definition for both a peace officer and police officer, which have slightly different authority. Authority equates to jurisdiction.

Some states like Oregon, a Deputy Sheriff, City Police officer, and State Police Officer carry the same peace officer authority and can enforce the law equally across the state. The only real difference between the Oregon peace officers is what government entity pays their salary (it’s often verbally discouraged to enforce the laws outside the area of your employer but not a written policy).

In some states, the highway patrol or state police may have jurisdiction of only the highway and roads systems. But again, this authority varies from state to state. Sheriff’s offices usually have authority over the county court, county jail systems, as well as general police responsibilities for unincorporated property and contract municipalities. In some states, however, the Sheriff’s Office may only have authority to serve civil papers.

Thankfully, with the miracle of the internet, an author has the power to look up this information in seconds as opposed to having to read through law books of yesteryear to obtain the necessary information. Even better, there are consultants out there that can assist you like Adam at

What about the FBI Agent investigating the murder in Los Angeles and the city cop looking into the dead body at the scenic national park?

Now that you, the writer, are armed with some basic knowledge of jurisdictions, let’s look back to the beginning of the first post and talk about our FBI Agent investigating that murder in downtown Los Angeles and that city cop investigating the dead body found at the scenic national park. We now know about subject matter jurisdiction and territorial jurisdiction. Based only on this information you can see jurisdictional problems as clear as day. So let’s see how we can apply a nexus to bridge our jurisdictional gap.

First, it is not generally a federal crime to commit murder. The FBI is not going to swoop in and arrest a serial killer that’s working the streets of Los Angeles. It’s not going to happen. There is no federal subject matter or territorial jurisdiction for the FBI. This is where so many authors go wrong.

How can your hero FBI Agent solve the case in Los Angeles and lock-up the bad guy?

The federal crime for murder is 18 USC 111. Make sure you read your statute for murder so you know how to create a nexus to fit your crime within jurisdiction of the federal government.

For the FBI scenario, let’s say a previous victim was abducted from the federal parking structure that was under concurrent jurisdiction. Her abduction and murder was potentially a federal crime because of where the first crime took place. Because the FBI Agent has jurisdiction to solve that abduction/murder, she can continue her investigation into other linked murders to identify her suspect. This is her nexus.

Or maybe, one of your victim’s body parts is found in a location that is either under exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction of the federal government, like the basement of the federal court house. Now that you understand nexus and jurisdiction you can make your scenario fit. That’s the gift of fiction.

Regarding your city cop with the body at the scenic national park. 

Because a city cop should only work homicides in the city in which she is employed, as you now realize, she would generally have no business working homicide cases outside the city limits, let alone in a national park. Let’s complicate this a little more and say it’s Yellow Stone National Park under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.

How can we get your hero cop out there to solve this case?

Actually, I know of a similar case that a detective friend of mine worked. This is the scenario. A biker owed drug money to other bikers but failed to pay. His biker pals went to his house and shot him twice with a shotgun, put his body in a container, and dumped it at an area under rural federal jurisdiction. The responding officials quickly determined the murder occurred elsewhere. From the victim’s ID, they had a clue of where the guy lived, so they contacted that specific police department to respond. The case was handed over to the city detectives who located the original homicide scene and made the appropriate arrests.

So when you want to put your hero cop in a place they normally wouldn’t work, you must use a nexus to lend credibility to your story. Abduction/murder scenarios, popular with thrillers, can bridge the jurisdictional gap because you can use the originating offense to give your hero the nexus.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]I completed Crime Writers Boot Camp: Jurisdiction[/tweetthis]

Any questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll have Sue post the answer.

Happy writing!

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine published her flash fiction and her short stories are published in numerous anthologies and collections. InSinC Quarterly featured her forensic articles about Radiocarbon Dating and Skeletal Differences. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday.


  1. Wow, that’s complicated! Thanks for shedding some light into these rather… erm… murky… waters? (damn mixed metaphors!)

    I think a lot of screen writers should also attend your boot camp. It’s one of the things I always chuckle about in cop shows: how cops supposedly sit around dunking donuts, until they catch whiff of a murder. They then doggedly chase away other law enforcement agencies who try to snatch the prize away from them.

    If only we lived in a world where crime was so rare… 🙂

    BTW, something that might interest you:

    Bookbub regularly launched new categories, due to an increasing demand to divide their main Mysteries list into more targeted sub-categories. They now have three new categories for Featured Deals: Crime Fiction, Cozy Mysteries,and Historical Mysteries.

    Books in the Crime Fiction category are propelled by a central crime and the process of solving that crime. This category can house police procedurals, hardboiled mysteries, detective fiction, and everything in between.
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…An Audiobook Experience: “The Wolf’s Moon” by Patrick JonesMy Profile

    • You’re right, Nicholas. TV and movies get it wrong so much of the time. And yes, jurisdiction is messy business. You’re lucky you write fantasy. 🙂

      Thanks for the info on Bookbub. I just that saw that email but haven’t had a chance to read it. Sounds perfect for me and my crime writer peeps. I’m off to read it about now. Have a great day!

  2. Thank goodness my hero is A PI. His jurisdiction is determined by nothing more than the size of the fee!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to put this in writing. I just forwarded both jurisdiction posts to one of my beta reader/writer/favorite people who is always asking questions such as:

    Why is there a police detective and a FBI agent? – Because the case involves a missing child.

    Wouldn’t it be easier to write if she was FBI instead of CIA? – Yes, if the story took place in the USA.

    She writes romance, but it would be nice if she understood why I do certain things, rather than just ‘taking my word’ for it.

    • I’m so glad “we” could help, Michelle. She might also be interested in Exceptions to Search Warrants and a few other posts I did recently. I know exactly how you feel. My CP writes family dramas with murders in her plot and often asks crime-related questions. Like you, she’s one of my favorite people. Writers helping writers is what it’s all about. 🙂

  4. Very interesting and it equates with what I’ve found out through researching the area where my upcoming series is set. There is county jurisdiction and city jurisdiction…a sheriff’s office and a police department (obviously my setting is smaller scale). I spoke with an ex-city official about to ensure I had it correct (initially I didn’t). Whew! Officer X is so right about investigating this stuff before releasing your novel. I’ve avoided involving Federal agencies so far but all of these details are great to know!

    • Smart, Mae. Like you, Marred is set in a (very) small town, so thankfully I was able to use the sheriff and call it a day. But in Wings of Mayhem I’m dealing with a multiple city crime spree. Much different. However, since I had the first murder occur in Revere, MA, and had formed an interagency task force, my detective could still lead the investigation in city after city. Even though the FBI were called in to assist, I only have the agent in a consultant role. Which, to my surprise, was correct, per Officer X. Love having him around. 🙂 It’s amazing how wrong TV and movies get it.

  5. Another outstanding article. This kind of thing can also add realism to speculative fiction. I can see it happening in some science fiction, for example.

    • Oh, I can see that. Good catch. BTW, now that I’ve gotten rid of that annoying plugin that kept tossing you in the spam folder, you “should” be able to comment like you did with my old site. In theory. 🙂

  6. This is really interesting, Sue & Officer X. Question – Who took primary jurisdiction in investigating the 911 Bombings? I can see the Pentagon scene as being Federal but what about the twin towers in NYC and the Pensylvania field? Was this one mass investigation or a series of independent ones?
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…GUNRUNNING — INTERNATIONAL TRAFFICKING IN ARMSMy Profile

    • Ooh, good question, Garry. While we wait for his response I’m going to wager a guess that it was FBI, because a) terrorism is a federal crime and b) the Pentagon bombing gave them a nexus to investigate the other locations. But I wonder if they used state as well due to the massive size of the crime scenes. Let’s see if I’m right. It’ll be interesting to see what he says.

    • Here’s Officer X’s answer, Garry:
      This was an FBI Investigation, as they have jurisdiction over all terrorism within the US and have specific funding for these types of investigations. The FBI had primary jurisdiction in several ways, the Airliners are regulated by the federal government (subject matter jurisdiction of the DOT and Department of Commerce), the Pentagon is exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government operated by the DOD, and any act of terrorism it is the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal government with FBI being tasked as the lead terrorism investigative agency.

      The crime scenes for two of the locations took place within state jurisdiction but the crimes were federal. Since the crimes were all within the FBIs jurisdiction and one of their primary missions they ran the investigations. Many other federal, state, and local agencies participated with his investigation around the country but the case itself was run by the FBI. All information gathered from interviews, subpoenas, and search warrants was entered into an FBI case file.

      Now saying that when you work a case like this the state can prosecute simultaneous as well under state charges. (This has been ruled by the appellate courts as not violating the double jeopardy rule)

  7. This is absolutely fascinating – and it’s important. Thanks, both, for sharing. Jurisdiction impacts not just who investigates a crime, I would imagine, but how that crime is investigated. Each jurisdiction has different resources, and I’d guess that impacts how real-life criminal investigation proceeds. And you’re right about how helpful public information officers can be. I’ve gotten valuable information from several PIO from my local police department, the National Park Service and a lot of other sources. Authors – reach out! Most people are happy to set you straight on things.
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…I’m Going to Some Place Where I’ve Never Been Before*My Profile

    • I never realized officers provided information for writers that until Officer X came along. But I imagine they would be thrilled to help out. After all, the FBI has an entire department dedicated to helping writers (link in the Crime Writers’ Resource). Why not the police?

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