Lawmakers want the federal government to fix Yellowstone’s legal blind spot

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FILE – The Idaho House of Representatives will reconvene Monday, November 15, 2021, in Boise, Idaho. A panel of Idaho lawmakers is recommending that the state legislature ask Congress to fill a loophole in the law that is leading some to designate part of Yellowstone National Park as a “death zone.” Most of the park is in Wyoming, but a small portion extends into Montana and Idaho. The federal court in Wyoming has jurisdiction over crimes committed within the park’s boundaries, but a common legal theory holds that crimes committed in the Idaho portion of the park cannot be prosecuted. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP, file)

AP

A panel of Idaho lawmakers is recommending that the Legislature ask Congress to fill a loophole in what some are describing as a “zone of death” in Yellowstone National Park, where crimes may not be prosecuted.

Most of the 3,471 square miles (8,990 square kilometers) park is in Wyoming, but about 3% of it extends into Montana and 1% of the park is in eastern Idaho. When Congress created the park in 1872, federal courts in the District of Wyoming were given jurisdiction over crimes committed within the park’s boundaries.

Boise Democratic Representative Colin Nash, an attorney, told the House Judiciary and Rules Committee Thursday that he first learned about the “death zone” in law school. The phrase refers to a 2005 legal theory put forward by Michigan State Law professor Brian Kalt that says a loophole in the law could force the federal government to dismiss charges against anyone accused of committing a federal crime in the Idaho portion of the park to have.

In a scholarly paper titled “The Perfect Crime,” Kalt noted that the Sixth Amendment states that persons charged with a felony have the right to be tried by a jury of peers drawn from the state and the region where the crime took place.

That’s a problem for Yellowstone, because the only creatures that live in Idaho’s roughly 50-square-mile portion of Yellowstone are grizzly bears, moose, and other wildlife — and they’re ineligible for jury duty. Kalt theorized that someone who committed murder in the Idaho part of Yellowstone could get away with it because the federal government would not be able to use a constitutionally sound jury.

Nash is sponsoring a joint memorial to formally ask Congress to close the gap.

“As far as I know, no crimes have been committed that have not been prosecuted,” Nash told the committee. “But every time there’s a high-profile disappearance in this area, I think about it — and last year there were two.”

During the months-long search for 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and her little brother, 7-year-old JJ Vallow, law enforcement said they obtained video and photo evidence the children entered Yellowstone National Park with their mother, Lori Vallow Daybell, but no evidence has been found that Tylee ever left the park. The bodies of both children were later found buried in the backyard of a home in east Idaho owned by their mother’s new husband, Chad Daybell. Lori and Chad Daybell were subsequently charged with multiple felonies in Idaho state court.

When 22-year-old Gabby Petito disappeared last year shortly after phoning her family from Grand Teton National Park – which borders Yellowstone – theories about the “death zone” came to the fore again. Petito’s body was found in the Wyoming section of the park and authorities blamed her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, who was later found dead in a Florida swamp.

Congress could amend the law to place the Idaho and Montana portions of Yellowstone under the jurisdiction of the District of Idaho and the District of Montana. Nash’s memorial would urge Congress to do just that, at least for Idaho.

Nash acknowledged that it’s not clear if Congress will actually do anything, as this has been a known issue for a long time.

“We can do our best,” he told the committee, drawing rueful laughter from the room.

The committee agreed on an oral vote to recommend that the full House of Representatives approve the resolution.

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