Weird History

There's A Section Of Yellowstone Park Where (Theoretically) No American Law Applies  

Stephan Roget
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Thoughts of committing a crime in Yellowstone National Park probably never cross the minds of most tourists - but if they knew about Yellowstone’s technically lawless area, they might reconsider. Serious offenses are still prohibited there, but due to a strange loophole in the Sixth Amendment, wrongdoings could not be legally tried without violating the culprit’s constitutional rights.

As far as the public knows, no one has ever actually been killed in Yellowstone’s “Zone of Death," but if it were to happen, the offender might just be able to get away with it. As of yet, the full legal implications of this lethal loophole has yet to be tested in a court of law, but there are those who believe that it’s only a matter of time before the area’s name takes on some tragically literal connotations.

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Photo: C24winagain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
It's A 50-Square-Mile Area Within Yellowstone

As evidenced by the myths of the Wild West and the recent success of The Purge franchise, American culture has long had a fascination with lawlessness. But few Americans realize that there’s a 50-square-mile section hidden within one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations in which, technically speaking, no serious laws regarding wrongdoings actually apply.

That area has been dubbed the “Zone of Death,” and it consists of the portion of Yellowstone National Park that falls within the state of Idaho. Due to a quirk of the US Constitution, the existence of this spot creates a loophole that would prevent any notable offense committed within it from being legally tried. Despite the nickname, no known illicit acts have actually occurred there - yet.

The Loophole Is A Result Of The Sixth Amendment And Yellowstone’s Unique History

The legal loophole is a result of language within the Sixth Amendment - language that guarantees an individual the right to a trial held within both the district and the state in which their alleged wrongdoing occurred. Due to its complicated history - Yellowstone National Park being established before Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming formally joined the Union - the entirety of the park falls within the Wyoming judicial district.

That wording means that if an offense serious enough to garner a trial by jury were to occur within the Idaho segment of Yellowstone, that jury would have to be pulled entirely from the population that lives within the Idaho segment of the park (the only people who qualify as being from the same district and state as the offense). There’s just one issue with that: Nobody actually lives within the zone. Therefore, no jury could convene, and thus no defendant could be legally tried there.

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Photo: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
It Would Be A Violation Of An Individual’s Rights To Try Them For An Offense Committed Within The Zone

The way in which the zone loophole has been interpreted by legal scholars is not that it makes serious offenses legal, but it does make them unenforceable and thus functionally legal. Any such trial would have to be held in either a Wyoming court or one in a different district of Idaho, and that would be a technical violation of the defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment.

This would, of course, require a defendant’s legal team to cite the loophole and for a judge to agree with their interpretation, which isn’t a guaranteed outcome. That being said, the constitutional nature of the loophole likely means that any such case could be appealed as far as the Supreme Court - and it’s important to remember that, in most instances, the Constitution wins out in the end.

There Are Some Exceptions To The Loophole

That’s precisely where the unofficial title of the zone comes from: The constitutional loophole means that any serious offense committed there would not be triable, up to and including slaying in the first degree. Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule . The loophole only applies to misdeeds serious enough to warrant a trial by jury, so misdemeanors and the like would still be enforceable.

It also bears mentioning that international wrongdoings committed within the zone would still be triable in international court. However, it’s difficult to imagine anything like that occurring in one of the most remote sections of Yellowstone National Park.